Alberta’s Companies and Schools Worried by IT Shortage

CBC reports on Alberta’s shortage of IT workers. Ashif Mawji, CEO of Upside Software, one of Edmonton’s start-up success stories, is troubled by the shortage of workers that threatens to slow the growth of his company. The dot-com bust is cited as a reason, with enrollment in the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology’s Computer Systems Technology program declining since 2001. This trend has been repeatedly observed across North America, but is especially prevalent in Alberta’s booming economy.

Having moved from Edmonton to Vancouver this year after finishing my degree at NAIT, I’ve personally contributed to this shortage. There were many positions advertised for students; most of my fellow graduates had jobs lined up before graduation. Vancouver was attractive to me because of the culture and climate, but also because the IT community here is doing interesting, cutting edge development that you only rarely saw in Edmonton. I took a pass on Edmonton’s opportunity and moved west.

It seems silly to blame the dot-com bubble; to do so is to ignore that it was an anomalous economic trend caused by unwise investment, an unnatural and irrational surge in demand. The article alludes to, but never specifically cites the obvious cause of this decline: working in IT in Alberta isn’t attractive as many other opportunities provided by the energy boom. When I was finishing high school in Edmonton I saw future two paths: A) Go into the trades and command high hourly rates straight out of school, or B) pursue post-secondary education, sinking money into tuition with the promise of opportunity if you survive the gauntlet. I certainly don’t regret my choice, but many of my peers found the trades more attractive than an IT career, or even post-secondary education.

In the last few years, Alberta companies across all sectors have had to go to extravagant lengths to attract employees. Even fast food joints will offer you a high wage and benefits. These efforts have not gone unnoticed and have contributed to an influx of migration from other provinces. It’s a tougher sell for IT companies, as those who are truly interested in an IT career are tempted by larger urban centres with larger congregations of IT companies like Vancouver, Toronto, Seattle, or Silicon Valley. I hope that Alberta’s IT companies can acknowledge the true reasons for the shortage of talent, and identify what can be done to make IT more appealing to young people, and make Alberta more appealing to IT people.