At nine years old, Robert Farrell already has a musical composition to his credit, a one-minute score that he has titled Robot. And although the name is predictable, how he wrote the piece is unusual: he did it on an electronic keyboard connected to a Macintosh computer. What is even more unusual is the school that he attends. Farrell is a Grade 4 student at River
Oaks Public School in Oakville, Ont., west of Toronto. There, 625 students from kindergarten to Grade 8 spend up to 70 per cent of their time doing projects on the school’s 220 Macintoshes and other computer equipment. Although they still read English literature from books, the rest of their resource materials, from encyclopedia in the library to work specifications in the school’s design shop, have been computerized. The students are clearly comfortable with the technology. Farrell worked on his composition after school on Wednesdays and Fridays for three weeks. “It’s fun,” he said. Still, according to a recently released federal study, the Canadian economy needs far more workers with programming skills than schools
are currently turning out—and far sooner than Robert Farrell will graduate.
Computers are a fact of daily life for almost all Canadians, whether they get cash from a bank machine or send an electronic-mail message to a co-worker. Every computer, meanwhile, needs a software program to function. But according to the Employment and Immigration Canada study Software and National
Competitiveness, while the demand for people who can design, produce and maintain software is growing steadily, the supply is shrinking as fewer students graduate from computing courses. The shortage of software workers could become so severe, the study claims, that it will affect Canada’s ability to compete in the global economy as early as 1995.
‘Nerd’: The shortage can be traced back to the nation’s high schools, where computer workers have an unflattering reputation. “The image of the nerd is a major problem,” said Anne McKague, national education chairman of the Canadian Information Processing Society, which, along with the Canadian Advanced Technology Association, sponsored the study.
As well, university enrolment in softwarerelated courses has dropped by 30 per cent since 1983, to 6,000 students.
Students who are not dissuaded by the negative stereotypes, however, are in keen demand. About 50,000 workers are directly employed in the software industry, and the federal study predicted that demand for their skills will grow by 20 per cent a year for the next three years. The need for people to do in-house computing in other industries, including financial services and government, will grow more slowly. But that sector faces a further problem. Because many of the 100,000 in-house software specialists in Canada have not consistently upgraded their knowledge, their technical skills are rapidly becoming obsolete.
Expensive: As a result, firms that are expanding have difficulty finding new skilled employees. Bruce Ramsay, vice-president of product development for Victoria-based HTS HiTech Systems Ltd., a computer systems developing and consulting firm, said that his company has tried a variety of means to recruit skilled employees. In addition to running advertisements in newspapers across Canada, HTS has hired recruitment firms and worked with university co-operative programs to recruit graduates. “It’s very expensive,” Ramsay said.
In Eastern Canada, Timothy Alison, president of Maritrain Ltd., which develops and distributes educational software programs throughout Canada and the United States, has the same problems. Indeed, Alison said that his Meteghan, N.S.-based company would grow “exponentially” if he could find more skilled workers. “It’s my biggest frustration,” he said.
Industry spokesmen say that jobs in the industry offer huge potential. Said Catharine Amston, a software specialist with the Ontario government’s trade office in Boston: “There are opportunities worth billions in the United States.” She added: “This will grow as the rest of the world becomes more computerized.”
And because software has become such an important part of so many products that Canadians make and so many services that they provide, a shortage of software workers can seriously affect the country’s ability to compete. Said McKague: “If we lose the capacity to develop and maintain software, we will have to get it elsewhere. The real issue is, what will we be giving away to get it?” Clearly, far more Canadians will have to become as comfortable with the computer age as the students at River Oaks Public School already are.
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