Ottawa Talent Initiative’s Action Centre shuts down as funding ends

OTTAWA (OBJ) — “We have an unhappy story today,” Marianne Wilkinson, councilor-elect for the new ward of Kanata North and chair of the Ottawa Talent Initiative‘s board, announced at a Tuesday afternoon press conference.

She and OTI executive director Gary Davis spoke before a sombre audience made up of shocked and dismayed technology workers about the impending closure of the organization’s Action Centre.

OTI, which began as a grassroots movement to support and help unemployed tech workers, uses the Action Centre to aid tech workers with specialized counselling services and job search activities.

The facility has become a victim of circumstance as the federal government plans to hand Labour Market Partnership programs to the province on Jan. 1. That is also the date at which its current funding arrangement with the federal government expires. Without that funding, the centre cannot operate. OTI could apply to the province for the funding to continue, but it cannot do that until after Jan. 1, by which time it will have shut its doors.

Davis said it was a “classic example of falling through the cracks,” adding that, “we have nothing ready to replace this right now.”

He and Wilkinson emphasized that this was a decision made by bureaucrats despite the efforts of politicians, including local MP Gord O’Connor, to make the case for continued funding on OTI’s behalf.

But why did Services Canada decide to end the current arrangement just as the transfer of training programs is made to the province?

“They determined that the local conditions have changed so these are no longer services that are needed for people in the industry,” Davis said, to which one audience member responded, “So where’s my job?”

Davis acknowledged that the situation has definitely improved since OTI opened the Action Centre in the fall of 2004. However, challenges remain and job cuts continue. For example, in the past week alone it came to light that Solectron is shutting down its Ottawa operations, affecting more than 400 full and part-time staff. Alcatel is also expected to cut its local operation as part of a larger reduction of its global workforce as it merges with Lucent. The companies that are hiring, meanwhile, do so by the handful at a time.

Davis couldn’t say how Services Canada had determined such services were no longer required, other than it may be a perception fostered by media coverage of events such as Dell’s expanded plans for Ottawa.

That, of course, sparked angry comments about low-paying jobs at a call centre being considered a worthy replacement for highly skilled engineering positions. The executive of OTI and the people it has helped agree that more effort must be made, with OCRI taking a leadership position, to do the kind of scientific analysis necessary to identify and separate “true” tech jobs from lower skilled technical support and call centre positions.

In addition, a comprehensive, long-term strategy must be developed to keep tabs on the ebb and flow of labour demand in the tech sector and correlate that demand with available talent, including identifying workers with skills that are easily upgraded or transferred. Davis emphasized the need for such a forward-looking strategy rather than always dealing with labour issues in the tech sector as “a reaction to disaster.”

The irony in all this, he noted, was that more generic government programs for displaced workers fail to address the needs of a highly educated and specialized tech worker. In fact, caseworkers for HRDC would often steer laid-off tech workers to OTI’s door because of its specialty.

At this point, Davis and Wilkinson are hoping to secure some kind of support from business and individuals that will allow OTI to keep the Action Centre open until they have a chance to approach the provincial government in the new year.

Davis noted that OTI is incorporated and its board will continue to operate while options are explored. OCRI has offered to provide some meeting space, but it does not have the budget to fund the Action Centre, Davis said.

OCRI chief executive Jeffrey Dale is a member of OTI’s board.

Comment: [email protected]

— Ottawa Business Journal

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