Business

The Talent Crunch

Faced with a tech-skills shortage, Canadian firms could be doing far more to attract good people

Patricia Chisholm October 9 2000
Business

The Talent Crunch

Faced with a tech-skills shortage, Canadian firms could be doing far more to attract good people

Patricia Chisholm October 9 2000

The Talent Crunch

Business

Faced with a tech-skills shortage, Canadian firms could be doing far more to attract good people

Patricia Chisholm

It’s the job-seeker’s mantra of the

moment: get some high-tech qualifications and watch the bucks roll in. After all, recent estimates have put the number of unfilled tech jobs in Canada at a staggering 30,000 to 30,000. But the reality can be something else again, as Vancouverite Rob Thompson, 34, recently discovered. After earning a three-year diploma in business administration and information systems last year, Thompson worked for six months at IBM in Edmonton. He left in search of a more entrepreneurial environment, but there was a problem. Most employers insisted on at least two years’ experience, even for entry-level positions. Finally, after much networking, résumé-sending and a handful of interviews, Thompson landed his current job as a technical support business analyst at Vancouver’s GT Group Telecom Services Corp. “The process was very frustrating,” he recalls. “There is supposed to be an abundance, but you can’t get through the door unless you have experience. There is a disconnect between the fantasy and the Canadian market.”

So much for the red-carpet treatment. Canadian high-tech companies may be screaming for people—most experts believe that recent estimates of staffing shortages are conservative and are likely to get worse—but there is growing recognition that the reasons may have just as much

ESSSZEStCI

to do with outdated hiring practices as with the undisputed worldwide shortage of tech talent. Even though Canada is bursting with jobs amid a booming economy, lots of qualified Canadians aren’t biting: while precise numbers are tough to pin down, a soon-to-bereleased study by Mahmood Iqbal of the Conference Board of Canada found that almost 3,000 computer scientists moved to the United States in 1997, up sharply from fewer than 500 in 1993.

Few, however, would argue that the brain drain is causing all of Canada’s tech recruiting problems, especially since it is more than matched by immigration from other countries. But it is one of the worrisome symptoms, some say, that Canada is doing a poor job of holding on to its best-trained, most innovative minds. In the industry’s defence, Robyn Gordon, vice-president of the Ottawa-based Software Human Resource Council, says most Internet companies were too busy getting up and running to worry about long-term staffing. And at times, Canadian companies made things even worse by setting unrealistic standards. “We’ve all heard the stories of the ads that required two to three years of experience in Java programming when Java was only six months old,” she says. But that attitude has undergone a huge change over the past 18 months, she adds. “Now, they are taking a hard look at their own practices.”

Gordon believes companies are finally waking up to the problem: “They have to,” she says, “they’re desperate for people.” Many, for instance, are beginning to accept the need for training, focusing on aptitude as opposed to a wish list of credentials. Faye West, president of the Canadian Information Processing Society and head of Information Systems at the Alberta Research Council, applauds that shift but says bolder steps are needed, especially when it comes to the ultimate draw for a programmer, say, or a chip designer: challenging work. The Canadian industry, she says, is too cautious, lagging behind the United States when it comes to coaxing highly creative individuals like software developers with leading-edge work. Then the problem perpetuates itself, as the most innovative minds head south. “If you can have fun and make big bucks, why not do it?” West asks.

At least one recent survey backs her up. Personnel Systems, an Ottawa-based firm that advises companies on compensation and performance management, recendy polled 130 high-tech professionals who have moved to the United States over the past five years. Money and opportunity were the big draws, with many saying they left reluctandy. Others said Canada fails miserably when it comes to competing in the worldwide market for tech workers, and is even surpassed by Ireland when it comes to generating professional “excitement.”

The Canada-U.S. Gap

An intermediate-level software developer has three to five years’ experience in writing computer programs. This is what he or she can expect to make in Canada and the United States:

ANNUAL PAY

(1999, Canadian dollars)

3

Estimated disposable income, as a proportion of salary, for a single person in roughly comparable cities (after income taxes, housing, health care, transport, food and clothing):

www.macleans.ca

for links

About 65 per cent have persuaded Canadian friends and colleagues to join them.

Janice Schellenberger, a senior partner at Personnel Systems, says Canadians have to stop arguing over the existence of the exodus and start talking about ways to keep talented staff, as well as attracting more. “It’s the people 30 to 45 years old with five to 10 years of experience who are going,” she says. “When you lose a person like that, you lose a lot.” She blames lacklustre government policies, such as last spring’s relatively minor revisions to the tax treatment of stock options, for much of the problem. “We are picking at the edges,” she says. “These people are saying, ‘We can work anywhere in the world. Give us a reason to make it Canada.’ ”

Companies have their own beeft, of course, often focusing on the investment climate. “Canada is getting better,” says Robert Crow, vice-president of policy at the Information Technology Association of Canada in Mississauga, Ont., “but it is still known as a high-tax, low-return jurisdiction. And high-end jobs are the result of investment.”

Kevin Dunal has a bird’s-eye view of the problem. A Canadian who has worked in the United States, he is now head of the Toronto-based Canadian operation of desktop publishing giant Adobe Systems Inc. He says that compared with the United States, it is “easy” to find people in Canada, but it still takes three to five months. Too often, he says, Canadian employers move slowly and lack flexibility. U.S. managers, he says, “move like lightning.” Dunal also stresses the importance of a stimulating environment. No one, he says, has left his group of about 20 people in the past two years, compared with an industry average of 15 to 20 per cent a year. He mosdy credits his company’s emphasis on “keeping the job interesting, day in and day out—you have to stay on your toes.”

Toronto-based Spectra Securities Software Inc. is certainly trying to look agile. Spectra sells products that help financial institutions manage customers’ portfolios, and counts some of Canada’s largest banks and insurance companies among its clients. Spectra’s employees almost doubled over the past year, to 234 (it has offices in New York City, London and Sydney, Australia). Most are Web heads: under-30 programmers known for bringing skateboards to the office and fuelling 60-hour workweeks with Cheezies and Coke. In addition to share purchases and bonuses, Spectra offers flexible hours, a PC purchase plan, as well as the usual pool table and kitchen crammed with junk food. “Someone asked for fruit,” deadpans president John McLeod. “It seemed like a healthy choice, but we went for it anyway.” The message, of course, is do what it takes. That will be crucial as Canadian high-tech firms batde over their most precious resource: human capital. CD