Feature

Investigating New Brunswick’s Tech Skills Shortage

Canada is in the midst of a worker shortage.

But it’s not because there aren’t enough people. It’s because there aren’t enough people who can do this kind of work.

It’s no secret that the technology and ICT sectors are rapidly growing. According to ICTC, growth in digital jobs in Canada has outpaced growth in the overall economy in the last two years by a ratio of more than four to one, with the ICT sector alone employing around 655,000 right now.

MoreWorkers

ICTC says Canada’s digital economy currently employs approximately 1.15 million workers and contributes $74 billion annually to GDP across all sectors.

That’s a lot of people, but more will be needed.

ICTC projects that 182,000 skilled ICT workers will be needed in Canada by 2019, with another 36,000 by 2020.

New jobs are great, but only if there are enough people to fill them. According to Ed McGinley of TechImpact, there aren’t.

“There are not enough computer science-type kids out there willing to do it,” McGinley says. “There’s lots of people using the phones, lots of people using Facebook, lots of people using [the technology], but are they able to create those platforms? No.”

Though the tech talent and skills gap is something all of North America is facing, it’s an issue that is affecting New Brunswick in particular. Which is unfortunate, since the technology sector may be what can transform the province’s economy.

“This sector can really be a saviour for the New Brunswick economy because there are jobs to be found in the new companies being created,” McGinley says.

“There are also the established businesses here today, a big component of their success right now rests on how well they adapt to and adopt new technologies. They want to do it, but where are they going to find the talent to do it? It’s not there.”

Ed McGinley

Ed McGinley

At TechImpact, McGinley works alongside New Brunswick’s biggest technology companies and business leaders. He says not having enough skilled tech workers is not only preventing bigger, more established companies from adopting new systems and technology, but it’s also making it difficult for them to make deals with companies from away. This prevents possible job creation for the province.

“If I pick any one of the companies that sit on our board, they would say to you that they’re trying to develop partnerships with businesses from away . . . and they would come here to New Brunswick if they could guarantee to them that we have the workers to do the work. But they can’t step up and say that,” McGinley says.

“We’re focusing on cybersecurity right now, because there’s a world need for it. It’s only going to get bigger. But the same thing exists for all the other technology companies out there who are looking to create that new product. They’re looking to create more value for their customers. Their customers will come here if we can guarantee we have the work force.”

Despite the rest of Canada dealing with the exact same issues, McGinley says New Brunswick is one of the provinces getting hit the hardest. Not only because we have a small population and tax base, but also due to the nature of the industries we’ve relied on forever.

“We’re a completely export-dependent economy. So how do you diversify yourself? We can’t grow trees any faster. We can’t pull minerals out of the ground any faster and we can’t pull fish out of the sea any faster,” says McGinley. “So how do we differentiate ourselves with our natural resources? I don’t want people to not think about the primary resources, but how do you create extra value for them? How do you make them more efficient? It’s through the adoption of technology.”

“If we can differentiate ourselves here in New Brunswick with that, we’re ahead of the game.”

Yet, it’s not like New Brunswick isn’t producing or attracting any tech talent at all. It’s just that much of the talent we have is going to work for a certain type of company­: startups.

“If [workers] see the sexy company and they already got the technology piece weaved into them, they will go work for those companies where they think they’re going to be providing value…It’s not hard for those companies to attract them,” McGinley says.

Though many of the bigger, more established companies are often hiring, McGinley says many young people have a fear of being pigeonholed into a job they hate. They don’t want to end up like the miserable cubicle workers in Office Space. When they see a hip open concept office with snacks and room for growth, it’s appealing. Startups and newer companies don’t need to deal with the baggage and history that many older, larger corporations bring to the table.

Million

“In the bigger companies…it does seem to be a bit more sterile, but it’s not,” McGinley says. “The bigger companies are changing. They recognize that it’s a challenge. But it’s been this way for this long, there is still this stereotype and they have to battle that. That’s tough.”

This is something Yves Boudreau, CEO of Moncton startup Qimple has seen first hand. He says since launching, they haven’t had any issues recruiting the talent they need.

“Whether it was done intentionally or not, I think a lot of young people now want to do something that’s a bit more meaningful,” says Boudreau. “The startup world usually affords that. It gives opportunities to someone to be a part of something from the ground-up and to really have their voice heard very early on.”

Boudreau says when a company offers things like a good company culture and competitive salaries, word spreads.

“We’ve been getting more and more ‘random’ resume drop-offs over the last few months here than we have before,” he says. “So I think we’re doing something right.”

The Fix

We know the problem, but how do we fix it?

In the near-term, McGinley says immigration can help. That doesn’t necessarily mean going as far as Europe to bring talent here, though that’s great too. But New Brunswick needs to become an attractive place for people with tech skills from around Canada.

“How do we get the folks who really have the skill set already?…Near-term, it’s probably through immigration, whether it’s from the sexy far-flung places of the world, or whether it’s in Maine,” McGinley says.

“Immigration will help us, it’s like medication. We put it on the wound; it helps for a little while. But I want to close that wound as much as I can, it’s going to take some real commitment.”

In the mid-term, McGinley says post-secondary education in the technology sectors needs to be boosted. This means getting students in high school introduced to and interested in computer science – in ways other than showing them how to work a smart board or how to use email.

There is work being done with this already. For example, organizations like Brilliant Labs and Inspire NB are exposing students to the possibilities of a career in technology before they graduate high school.

Is it working? The University of New Brunswick’s latest numbers might hold a clue.

In the fall of 2015, UNB had 191 new students enrolled in its computer science undergraduate and graduate programs.

The engineering department has experienced similar growth.

“Enrollments in the faculty are among the highest they have ever been,” says Dr. Chris Diduch, Dean of Engineering at UNB.

“We now have approximately 1,400 undergraduate students. This represents more than 30 per cent growth since 2007…we have more applicants than available seats.”

But even if we took every New Brunswick high school graduate in 2016 and stuck them into computer science, McGinley says it still wouldn’t be enough to fill the gap in four years. With many graduates looking at places like Waterloo, Ontario and the United States to get their technology and computer science education, New Brunswick needs to be an attractive place to study.

“We need to fill our seats at UNB, and we have. Now we need more professors. The funding for the universities is going down in a very key faculty which is computer science,” he says. “They need to make a business case as to why they need more money to bring in more professors teaching not old-age stuff but new stuff, and that’s costly.”

Education

But McGinley says the long-term solution, which is perhaps the most difficult one, is a complete overhaul of the K-12 school system. Much of the current school system was designed for the industrial revolution. It served its purpose, but it’s time to move on.

“Today’s world changes so much faster, that type of prescriptive teaching method doesn’t work. It’s not preparing them for 21st century learning, which is more about thinking independently, thinking creatively and working in teams,” McGinley says.

This would be a pretty huge endeavour for any provincial government. It would essentially amount to putting the education system in the hands of the people who know it best – the teachers.

“This needs to be so depoliticized. It needs to be enduring. It has to last. The last thing that we as a tech sector want to do is tell teachers how to teach. We’re not teachers. Politicians aren’t teachers. But give them license to make the teaching more personalized. It’s not about passing a test,” McGinley says.

“I really believe that if we change that, the shortage of workers in the ICT and tech sector in general goes away. Slowly at first, but it will be an exponential uptake over time.”

ICTC’s National Digital Talent Strategy also offers some suggestions for closing the skills gap, such as making computer science education mandatory from kindergarten through grade 12; removing barriers to full participation in the ICT field by women, immigrants, persons with disabilities, Indigenous peoples and visible minorities; providing incentives such as tax credits to reduce the financial burden on small and medium-sized businesses to hire skilled employees in ICT; and helping those displaced from other industries to transition into digital economy jobs.

“Our economy is being profoundly reshaped by rapid advancements in digital technology and new business models, many of which originate from outside of Canada. The softness in the Canadian economy precipitated by low commodity prices has highlighted the urgent need to diversify our economy,” said ICTC president and CEO Namir Anani, in a release about their strategy.

“Preparing and harnessing the full potential of Canada’s innovative talent to create the industries of the future has never been more critical for the Canadian economy.”

We Can Do It (If We Really Want To)

This is a huge challenge for everyone across the country, but it’s something that can be achieved if everybody pulls their weight. McGinley says New Brunswick particularly has some advantages when it comes to getting ahead.

One advantage is the province’s size. With a quick drive or a phone call, anyone has the power to reach out to decision makers, influencers and people in power.

“We can adapt much more readily. Everyone has access to their MLA, their MP,” McGinley says. “You just need to pick up the phone, go to the constituency office. Your voice probably carries more than it would if you were in New York City. It matters more.”

Then there is the fact that we’ve known for a long time that what we’re doing isn’t working, and many are ready for a change.

“The disadvantage is – do we have the amount of resources, financial capital and personal capital to make it happen? Probably not,” McGinley says.

“But we do have the capacity to find a way to get shit done in the absence of all hope.”