Skills that help Canadian IT professionals find work in a turbulent market

While the employment situation in Canada’s IT sector is as turbulent as in other industries, there are many “bright spots” that IT professionals can take advantage of, industry watchers say.

“In general, candidates who combine tech expertise with a breadth of business experience will have a definite advantage,” noted Dave O’Brien, eastern Canada vice-president, Eagle Professional Resources Inc. in an interview with

See related story and video: Hot skills that get you ahead of the game in Canada’s IT jobs market

Eagle is an Ottawa-based technology staffing firm with offices in 10 cities across Canada.

Right now there continues to be a demand for senior business analysts, senior project managers, and systems architects, noted O’Brien, who keeps his pulse on the shifting IT hiring practices of hundreds of businesses across the country.

“Those kinds of positions aren’t as vulnerable to offshoring as jobs involving testing and coding.”

On the issue of “hot skills” though, there are significant demographic variations, with senior management in various regions across Canada adopting very different approaches.

For instance, in Vancouver and Victoria, where many employers are being cautious and putting big projects on hold, in-demand skills are Siebel, quality assurance (QA), and customer relationship management (CRM), said Eagle CEO Kevin Dee in a blog post.

In Calgary, he said, major projects are also being put on hold and many contractors are becoming available. Pockets of hiring activity here are for roles such as business analysts (BA) and project managers (PM), and people with SharePoint, and LiveLink skills.

“Edmonton’s hot jobs are for Oracle, BA, and PM positions.” That city, he said, is still seeing many government RFPs for IT positions, but far fewer opportunities are coming out as “live orders.”

Regina’s IT market is still relatively strong due to government and crown corporations, Dee said. Hiring there remains consistent, with fewer job cuts, and “hot” skill sets include BAs and PMs.

In sharp contrast, Winnipeg is “very slow” with limited investment in new IT projects, and many organizations focusing on maintaining systems and infrastructure.

In-demand jobs within the Winnipeg market include network administrators, help desk analysts, and business analysts.

Turbulent times in Toronto

The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) has been hard hit by the financial downturn and companies in all sectors are cutting budgets.

There’s also a noticeable increase in the number of IT professionals available for work across the GTA.

While many organizations are still hiring, the job market is still fairly slow, the Eagle CEO noted.

“Permanent positions are decreasing due to layoffs and headcount reductions, and many organizations that would normally only hire permanently are beginning to only engage contractors.”

As jobs get harder to find around Toronto, he said, people’s tolerace levels are rising on issues such as pay rates, contract durations, and extensions without a rate increase. 

They are more open to either permanent or contracting positions and are willing to consider jobs in remote areas that require more travel.

But even in this tight market there are some notable bright spots.

In many GTA companies, business transformation seems to be the big push and several large enterprise infrastructure projects are getting underway, according to O’Brien.

He cited the large projects the Ontario government has on the go that are very likely to need contract resources at specific ministries.

But while in the GTA and elsewhere there’s a big rise in contract IT work, rates for such jobs have also gone down. “It’s a coast-to-coast phenomenon,” the Eagle exec told

In today’s economy the first thing many companies are doing to survive is cutting back on head count, he noted. “But there’s still much work that needs to be done, so that probably bodes well for contracting as opposed to permanent.”

As positions become scarcer, and availability on the candidate or resource side increases, rates will drop, that’s only to be expected, noted the Eagle executive.

He said employers are benefiting from this trend … big time.

“We’re emerging from a market, especially in Western Canada, where a scarcity of contract resources forced rates up for several years.”

Today, the situation has changed, he said, and bigger companies are taking advantage of that — seeking the best value for any contract work they take on.

Contract workers need to get creative

And they are getting far greater value, according to Dee’s blog.

“Employers with new opportunities are finding that they can put less effort into their searches because the market is seeing more IT professionals available and looking for work.”

For contract IT workers, this just means they have to put in more effort, be more creative, and less picky about jobs they’re willing to take up, industry watchers say.

“Many are getting their names out wherever they can and using various strategies to find work,” Dee noted. “These include lowering their rates significantly [and] looking at broader opportunities by chasing roles for which they are over-qualified.”

Some contractors have even been more willing to locate to other regions across the country — specifically, moving from Eastern Canada to the West.

Hot jobs in this region currently include business analysts as well as infrastructure project managers and architects, he said. “Senior billing resources and .NET C# resources are also in high demand.”

Three reasons for optimism

O’Brien says there are tell-tale signs the employment market for IT professionals in Canada will improve — and cited at least three of these.

For one, the Eagle exec noted that companies, across the board, are focusing ever more closely on productivity and technology is at the forefront of that thrust. “There’s also a lot of consolidation work going on, with businesses integrating systems and departments, all of which is also going to require technology resources and skilled IT people to execute.”

Secondly, in government jurisdictions, O’Brien said, the imminent retirement of a large number of IT knowledge workers will have a big impact on the jobs market, he said. “These folk have defined benefit pensions and indexed pensions, so when they reach the end of their career they will retire … they won’t stick on.”

That’s a big chunk of IT talent heading out of the door over the next 3 – 4 years that will need to be replaced, he said.

Thirdly, at the other end of the spectrum, Canadian universities and colleges aren’t turning out the required number of qualified tech graduates to fill these positions. This means the job prospects would be good for people with the right skill sets.

Bleaker south of the border

While it’s been particularly tough first quarter of 2009, O’Brien says the overall situation and mood within Canada’s IT sector is far better than it is in the U.S.

Recent surveys seem to bear out this view.

For instance, Technisource’s IT Employee Confidence Index shows that U.S. IT professionals’ confidence in the economy, the job market and their employers’ futures hit a new low during the first quarter of 2009.

Just six per cent of tech workers think the economy is improving, while two-thirds (66 per cent) said it continues to deteriorate.  

U.S.-based IT workers are even more pessimistic about the job market. Nearly 80 per cent believe fewer IT jobs are available, and for good reason: Job search site reported in February that demand for IT jobs was starting to decline.

Only seven per cent of American IT professionals see more job opportunities.  Despite their bleak outlook on the job market, though, 38 per cent of IT professionals plan to start a job search, and 37 per cent are confident they’ll find one.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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