Skills shortage: IT companies go back to school

Published: September 9th, 2009

With the shortage of skilled workers a growing concern of many Canadian technology companies, vendors such as IBM and Samsung are rolling up their sleeves and going back to school, trying to bring technology directly to children at an early age.

While education is a government responsibility, more and more companies are finding a role to play in exposing children to technology, with the goal that, one day, those young people will choose to pursue a career in the technology industry, or at least become a consumer of technology.

Dave Robitaille, manager of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs for IBM Canada, said the company has an interest in helping to nurture a more skilled workforce today, and for the future.

“The science, technology and engineering fields are critical to us not just from a recruiting standpoint, but also because the people in those disciplines are going to work at or operate the businesses that constitute our customers as well,” said Robitaille. “It’s of great importance for us to make sure that marketplace is healthy, whether they work for IBM, or are partners or customers of IBM.”

If Canadian companies can’t find the skilled workers they need it’s a competitiveness issue, said Robitaille, and the nation’s economy will suffer.

“We’re going to fall behind because of the role technology plays in fostering innovation in any business,” said Robitaille. “If we’re not producing the people that can keep all of Canada’s industries competitive we’re going to lose out.”

That’s echoed by Ron Hulse, vice-president of IT marketing with Samsung Electronics Canada, who points to retiring baby boomers and an ageing workforce as factors aggravating the low enrolment in science and engineering fields of study.

“It’s clearly in the private sector’s best interest to try to support the development of skilled trade and technology abilities because, let’s face it, technology permeates all things today,” said Hulse, noting even a hairdresser today needs a knowledge of the chemistry of hair. “There’s almost no job you can do today where technology doesn’t play a role.”

Nearly 20 years ago, IBM launched a now global program called Reinventing Education. Within it are a number of programs designed to address declining enrolment in science and engineering at all levels, from childhood and middle school through high school and into post-secondary education.

Robitaille said a central part of IBM’s programs is access to technology, exposing young people to technology at different ages and encouraging technology to be structured into their loves at a very early age. Designed for children as young as three, IBM’s Young Explorer is a brightly-coloured kid’s desk with a PC embedded inside. He adds that the alarming representation of women and aboriginal peoples in the IT industry and applied sciences is also something IBM aims to address through its programs such as EXITE (Exploring Interests in Technology and Engineering), a camp for girl entering grades seven and eight that introduces them to career possibilities in the technical fields and exposes them to female IT role models.

“We see the impact of the skills shortage by not being able to maximize our business opportunity, so it’s incumbent on us to address that,” said Robitaille.

Samsung’s Hulse also sees technology playing a bigger role in the classroom. Smartboards are beginning to replace blackboards, allowing students to take notes, collaborate, and share information in real-time.

“I think the bigger trend is how kids adapt to the sharing and collaborating world today,” said Hulse. “As a private sector company it’s something we look at all the time.”

It’s not just about exposing kids to technology, said Hulse. Just as important is learning how tomorrow’s workers want to work and accommodating that, so companies such as Samsung can be seen as employers of choice by tomorrow’s top talent.

Samsung brings in students for work-terms, and exposes them to the working environment and the IT tools necessary to do the job. But the training doesn’t end with graduation, Hulse notes. Employers are investing more in on the job training, and graduates themselves are choosing to pursue specialized training to a degree they never have before.

“There is much greater competition for jobs today. Parents recognize that and instill discipline in their students at an early age,” said Hulse, adding technology is not only making learning more enjoyable, its encouraging young people to pursue their educations further. “There’s a very fine line between homework and social skills and using the web for leaning purposes. As learning gets more interactive they enjoy it more.”