The Toronto Star
Sunday, January 11, 1998
(Business Section)

We need high-tech training to thrive

by David Crane

On a big billboard facing a large research complex of Northern Telecom Ltd. in Ottawa, a competing U.S. company is trying to lure away some of the Canadian company's best employees.

Cisco Systems Inc. of California acquired Ottawa-based Skystone Systems last year and now wants to double the company's work force to 100 people.

Because of the shortage of skilled workers, Cisco is having to raid other companies - a practice it excels at, according to a Fortune magazine article last year.

Plans by Nortel and Newbridge Networks Corp. to hire a total of 10,000 workers in the Ottawa area over the next four years are also adding to the concerns of smaller companies, which face escalating personnel costs.

A recent "members' briefing" from the Conference Board of Canada reports that the growing shortage of skilled high-technology workers is leading to increased raiding by companies.

Two-thirds of companies surveyed by the Conference Board "attributed the loss of high-technology talent to the aggressive recruitment techniques of competitors", according to Jean-Pascal Souque of the Conference Board.

Former employees can be an important force in luring more talent away. "The Internet has become a popular way to attract competitors' employees, but recruiters are also roaming companies' parking lots and using a host of other strategies", Souque says.

In addition, he points out, "companies are using almost every available financial form of compensation to attract and retain high-technology recruits".

These include signing bonuses, stock options, and other short-term and long-term incentives. Base pay is also rising.

Companies are scrambling every which way to find employees so they can pursue new business opportunities, or replace workers they have lost.

Canadian companies are feeling the pinch in two ways:

But the other problem is that Canada is simply not producing enough of the highly skilled workers needed for high-tech industry growth.

According to Statistics Canada, there has been some increase in enrolments and graduation rates from our colleges and universities.

In 1990, Canadian universities graduated 2,194 people with bachelor degrees in computer science; by 1995 the number of graduates had risen to 2,949. In mathematics, the number of bachelor degrees granted rose from 2,064 to 2,182. But in electrical engineering, the number of degrees actually fell, from 1,902 to 1,837.

There was an increase in the number of highly valued PhDs; in computer science, from 45 in 1990 to 88 in 1995. Likewise, the number of PhDs in mathematics rose from 72 to 125 and in electrical engineering from 107 to 193.

In our colleges, the number of computer science graduates rose from 839 to 1,107 and electrical and electronic engineering technologies from 745 to 1,230 graduates.

But these numbers simply are not adequate to meet demand. One factor is that spaces for students in universities and colleges are too limited. Top universities are demanding entry marks of over 90 per cent, but many students with marks in the mid- to low 80s might also become highly qualified workers if given the chance.

This suggests Ontario and other provincial governments need to change the way they fund universities and colleges to give them more flexibility to meet rising demand.

Canada's economy suffers if our leading growth industries are held back by a lack of workers.

And it makes no sense for the federal and Ontario governments to comb the world to attract foreign investment if it simply means that foreign companies come in and steal workers away from Canadian companies.

To some extent, private sector trainers such as Devry Institute of Technology and ITI Information Technology Institute, are trying to fill the gap. While these companies can help increase the supply, they cannot solve the problem.

Canada is also relying on recruiting highly skilled people from other countries, notably India, Russia, Eastern Europe, East Asia, and South Africa, says Souque.

But countries such as India, Malaysia and others are trying to strengthen their domestic industries to keep skilled people at home.

If Canada is to capitalize on the opportunities of the knowledge-based economy and the good jobs it can bring, then we are going to require more effort by both the federal and provincial governments to ensure we have skilled workers and their ideas.

That will allow our companies to grow and new companies to get started, generating good jobs for the 21st century.

Copyright © 1998 by The Toronto Star. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.