Business

Desperate for help

Software firms are crying out for workers with the right skills

D’ARCY JENISH April 21 1997
Business

Desperate for help

Software firms are crying out for workers with the right skills

D’ARCY JENISH April 21 1997

Desperate for help

Business

D’ARCY JENISH

Joseph Rouse sounds excited—like a kid talking about a new circle of friends—when he discusses the employees who have joined his company, Tundra Semiconductor Corp., since the start of the year. The Kanata, Ont., firm, which develops computer chips, has recruited a manager of human resources, an applications engineer, a design engineer and a vice-president of research and development. By the end of the year, says Rouse, Tundra’s marketing manager, the company hopes to fill another 27 positions, boosting the payroll to 82. But even with offers of competitive salaries, generous fringe benefits and stock options, finding those people will be an enormous challenge. “There’s been an explosion in demand for skilled designers, so we have to go out and get them,” Rouse says. “They’re not going to come to us.” Tundra’s rivals in the high-tech sector face a similar problem. Across the country, as many as 30,000 positions in the software industry are going begging. Desperate employers have bid up

Software firms are crying out for workers with the right skills

salaries—entry-level jobs now fetch as much as $40,000 annually—by at least 10 per cent over the past two years. The federal government, bowing to industry pressure, has even agreed to a temporary easing of immigration rules to allow between 1,500 and 3,000 additional software designers into the country this year. “The shortages have been a chronic problem for the past decade and the forecast is that they’re going to get much worse,” said Gaylen Duncan, president of the 200member Information Technology Association of Canada, based in Mississauga, Ont. “There isn’t a simple solution.”

On the contrary, demand for computer programmers is expected to skyrocket around the world over the next two years as companies, governments and public institutions tackle the so-called year 2000 problem. Most of the world’s existing computers are programmed to identify years by their last two digits only—using 97, for example, to mean 1997. Unless they are updated—a time-consuming, laborious process in most cases—they will assume that the day following Dec. 31, 1999, is actually Jan. 1,1900. Bank comput-

ers will fail, credit-card companies will not be able to issue bills and governments will be unable to issue drivers’ licences. “We heard about one Canadian company that could use 10,000 programmers purely for this year 2000 challenge,” says Peter Ward, whose Toronto-based recruiting firm specializes in the computer industry. “Employers are just sucking people from the marketplace at a tremendous rate, and the talent isn’t there.”

Compounding the shortage is the fact that society’s use of information technology is growing by 15 per cent to 20 per cent a year, according to some estimates. Besides running desktop computers, software is now a vital component of telephone systems, bank machines, photocopiers, automobiles, refrigerators and VCRs, to name only a few. “We’re getting better tools and they’re faster than ever,” says John Simmons, director of resource management with Montreal-based DMR Consulting Group Inc., which develops, maintains and operates information systems for other companies. ‘The world is automating.”

At the heart of the information technology revolution are the software designers and engineers, but there simply are not enough of them to go around. ‘We have 200 to 300 jobs open at any one time,” said Ward. “Recruiting is probably at an all-time high.

The counteroffers are unbelievable. We had one person come to us looking for a position and we got him an offer that was close to $10,000 more than he was making.

When the employer got wind of it, they counteroffered another $20,000. So that person went from about $60,000 a year to $90,000 in a couple of weeks.”

Besides paying more, employers have had to become more innovative and aggressive when hiring. For example, Tundra and several other Ottawa-area technology firms are organizing a recruiting road show. They will travel to several Canadian and U.S. cities, rent meeting rooms and invite programmers to drop off résumés or come in for interviews. Whatever approach they use, companies must make decisions quickly. “The challenge is to move fast enough to hire people before the competition does,” Simmons says.

“You used to have weeks to talk and negotiate. Now, you’ve probably got three days, especially in places like Ottawa, which is Canada’s high-tech centre.”

Another issue facing software companies is the exodus of talent to the United States. Ward says he has attended job fairs in Toronto where half the participating firms were American. U.S. recruiters are also showing up in greater numbers on Canadian university campuses. Arnold Dyck, associate chair for the University of Waterloo’s undergraduate computer science department in Ontario—one of the top facilities of its kind in North America—said that 25 U.S. companies visited the campus in search of programmers during the 1995-1996 school year. This year, the number jumped to 100, even though only 200 students will earn undergraduate degrees in computer science.

U.S. recruiters often offer higher salaries than their Canadian counter-

parts and, in some cases, signing bonuses. “The [bonus] figure we’ve been hearing is up to $50,000 [U.S.],” said Robyn Gordon, communications director of the Software Human Resource Council, an Ottawa-based organization dedicated to, among other things, increasing the supply of programmers in Canada. “That’s for a kid coming out of university, and that’s not even his salary.”

Despite the opportunities, industry executives say that too few Canadian students are enrolled in postsecondary computer programs. Gedas Sakus, president of Nortel Technology, a division of Brampton, Ont.-based Northern Telecom Ltd., said that his company hires about 400 graduates a year, or about 20 per cent of the Canadian students who earn computer science or electrical engineering degrees. ‘We’re not enticing enough students to go into the technology field,” said Sakus. ‘We have to do a lot more, as a corporation and as a country, to promote this type of education.”

As part of an effort to solve the problem, Sakus’s company

recently sent 2,500 copies of a CD-ROM titled Nortel InSites to Canadian high schools. Combining video and text, the CD-ROM leads students on a “virtual reality” tour of Nortel’s research and development complex in Ottawa and allows them to obtain information from 50 employees who work there. The Software Human Resource Council, meanwhile, is pursuing two initiatives to steer elementary and secondary students towards computer courses. One is a speaker’s package that software professionals can rely on when addressing students; the other is a program that would allow teachers to communicate, via e-mail, with programmers. “Kids don’t understand the job opportunities that exist in information technology,” Gordon says.

Still, there are a few signs that the supply of software specialists may be on the upswing. Admissions to the University of Waterloo’s undergraduate computer science programs have risen to 575 this academic year from 340 three years ago. There has also been dramatic growth in enrolment at privately run institutes that offer computer programs. The ITI Information Technology Institute Inc., a publicly traded company with schools in Halifax, Moncton, N.B., Ottawa and Toronto, will produce 1,300 graduates this year, up from 200 in 1993. ITI students, who must have university degrees, pay $17,000 for a nine-month course, but the school claims that more than 90 per cent of them will quickly land jobs in the sector. ‘We’re seeing an explosion of growth of private-sector education,” said Duncan. “They can react to the market much faster than universities and colleges.” But not fast enough, he concedes, to fill all the vacancies in Canada’s burgeoning software industry. □