Dwindling interest in high tech education threatens industry

“Everywhere else in Canada, negative perceptions about high tech and information technology are almost disappearing, The perception here (in Ottawa) is very different. We have to fight against it and hopefully get rid of it as quickly as possible.”

Lague-114X178.jpgBy Susan Hickman
From SCAN's Print Edition

As the need for skilled IT employees increases, the industry is facing an unforeseen reality of dwindling interest in the field. Academics, educators and entrepreneurs are noticing that students are veering away from the traditional sciences that would take them into higher studies in technology and engineering programs. In many cases, high school students are dropping the more challenging mathematics and science courses to boost their averages and give them better chances to get into universities. Industry needs to get the message out to teenagers that there are good, fun jobs in engineering and computer science that have nothing to do with being a ‘geek,’ says Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation (OCRI) president Jeffrey Dale.
Local universities report a recent increase in applications for software, computer science and computer engineering programs, albeit nowhere near the numbers of the peak years of several years ago and likely inadequate to meet industry needs. Claude Laguë (left), dean of engineering at the University of Ottawa, was hoping to see an increase in enrolment of first-year engineering students interested in pursuing technology programs this fall, but admits registrations are not too far above last year’s numbers at just over 400.

Laguë believes the bust of 2001 hit the Ottawa area particularly hard and resulted in a falling interest in pursuing technology. But now “the message we hear from industry is that they are expecting to hire quite significantly within the next few years,” Laguë explains. “We need to get more students into the pipeline now, so they are ready.”
Laguë was dean of the college of engineering at the University of Saskatchewan before coming to Ottawa, and was at Université Laval before that.

“Everywhere else in Canada, negative perceptions about high tech and information technology are almost disappearing,” he says. “The perception here (in Ottawa) is very different. We have to fight against it and hopefully get rid of it as quickly as possible.”

Rafik Goubran, acting dean of engineering and design at Carleton says there has been a significant increase in numbers of applicants to all engineering and computer science programs both last year and this year. But he admits that industry has more jobs available than there are graduates and, while the number of applications and confirmations of placement are rising, numbers still do not match those in 2000. Carleton’s School of Computer Science, which attracts students with such pitches as “100% job placement for computer science co-op” and “89,000 new IT jobs by 2011,” has added a new stream in computer game development for this September. As a result, applicants to the school’s first-year programs have increased by 50% to about 150, which is approaching enrolments in 2000, according to associate director and professor Michel Barbeau.

“It’s very important for industry to talk to high school students and tell them the benefits of IT programs,” says Goubran. “If we had more demand, we could increase the programs.”

Laguë notes that some professors from the uOttawa’s School of Information Technology and Engineering have reduced their course loads to talk to high school students about technology programs and career opportunities in the sector.

“We are doing as much as we can to promote the career opportunities in those fields. Faculty members and graduate students go into the high schools. We offer mini courses and summer camps and we are trying to get the message out there that we have degree programs that will be a ticket for an interesting and productive career in the future. We could accommodate 500 to 600 more students, particularly undergraduates.”

Meanwhile, it appears that some would-be tech students are enrolling in mechanical, chemical and especially civil engineering programs, which are full at the uOttawa. Carleton reports a growing demand for civil, mechanical and aerospace programs.

Industry needs
bigger voice

Like Goubran, Laguë also says it’s important for the high-tech industry to play a role in attracting students to pursue higher studies in the field of technology.

“The industry is telling us they are going to be growing as much as 25%. Those employees will have to come from somewhere and if they’re not in school right now, they are not going to be available four or five years from now. I don’t think (the industry) realizes it may be facing as severe a crunch as could happen if numbers don’t go up significantly in the next few years,” Laguë warns.

OCRI’s Dale says the declining interest in science in general is apparent across Canada and in such countries as France, Germany and Scandinavia. He suggests over the long term there could be a significant impact on the economy as skills shortages in high tech become more acute in years to come.

“Jobs are being posted internationally. Nortel is looking for the best students from anywhere on the globe – India, China, Latin America.”

Dale agrees with Laguë that the industry needs to do a much better job at perfecting its image. He also suggests that post-secondary institutions should lower their prerequisites. uOttawa’s minimum entrance requirement for most programs is 70%, although the average entrance marks are closer to 80%, according to Laguë. Carleton also chooses top applicants, who generally have marks in the 80s.

“The industry itself needs to be less discriminating, consider retraining and financially supporting employees who
wish to go back to school,” says Dale.

Small gets big
Dale points to the growth among the smaller high-tech companies that no one hears about. Small- and medium-sized enterprises, which in the past have focused on hiring skilled employees, are now recruiting at universities in an effort to fulfill their staffing requirements.

“The growth is on a small scale and on an individual basis, but the number of smaller companies is large. In the past, a lot of jobs were in telecommunications, but we have always had viable software and technology building to support health sciences and life sciences. The smaller companies are hiring now and there are some pretty cool things happening.”

For example, there has been a lot of growth in “clean space” firms, that is, bio products, clean energy and environmental technologies. Triacta Power Technologies, Inc., of Almonte, is developing energy metering and management products for apartment, condominium and commercial markets. The Ottawa-based Thermal Energy International Inc. is partnering with firms in China, EcoVu Analytics is working on water purification, and Iogen and Genesys Biogas are biotech firms looking at ways to produce ethanol more efficiently.

While high-tech jobs are being outsourced out of necessity, Frédéric Boulanger of Macadamian Software says there are still plenty of jobs locally that need to be filled to satisfy the need for “core competency” within the organization. “And we don’t have enough people for that. We need strong technical people who can be versatile or specialized to be the drivers of the future.”

Dale says business needs to promote the jobs that are here. “Ottawa-based companies are taking some ownership,” he says, pointing to the Ottawa Software Cluster (which helps local software companies build their businesses), which has resolved to “change this by talking to students in high schools about our companies and about the jobs. One school at a time and one person at a time.’”

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