March 29, 2016 6:22 am

No degree needed: Tech talent shortage means less education

Participants jam into a giant lecture hall in Vancouver, B.C. Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015 to take part in HTML500, a course which teaches computer coding skills.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
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TORONTO – Before Hired launched in Toronto last November, nearly 27,000 people and more than 280 companies applied for the online service that matches job seekers with gigs in the tech sector.

About five per cent of applicants are approved to use Hired’s services, and it usually charges firms 15 per cent of a new employee’s first-year salary for each successful hire.

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To Matt Mickiewicz, the company’s co-founder and chief product officer, the high interest signals a problem – the jobs are there, but there are too few qualified candidates to fill them.

“There is a huge talent shortage within Canada,” said Mickiewicz. The company plans to expand its Canadian operations to either Vancouver or Montreal this year, where he says the situation is similar.

Canada’s tech companies are in stiff competition for retaining top prospects. There won’t be enough qualified people to fill more than 218,000 new information and communications technology jobs in the country by 2020, according to a report published by the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) earlier this month.

READ MORE: How coding bootcamps are preparing people for Canada’s tech ‘gold rush’

That may be years away, but organizations already struggle to find qualified applicants.

One of the top challenges for many is attracting and recruiting employees, according to an ICTC survey where more than 53 per cent of respondents identified it as a problem.

It’s an issue Shopify, an Ottawa-based company that helps other businesses build their e-commerce presence, has encountered.

“In looking for folks who are going to raise the bar, absolutely, there are challenges,” said Anna Lambert, Shopify’s director of talent acquisition.

Tech companies must have an expansive recruitment strategy to bring in the best employees, she said.

There are traditional avenues like on-campus recruitment. But Shopify also sponsors events abroad, partners with organizations that teach coding and attends niche conferences.

A prospective employee’s education level isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker.

“There are some roles where the top candidate will have a master’s or a PhD, but there are lots of candidates who don’t,” Lambert said.

Sometimes, Shopify attracts students midway through their studies through its year-round internship program and they decide against resuming their education because they enjoy the significant impact they’re making at the company, she said.

Harrison Brundage, 25, quit his software engineering program at McGill University more than halfway toward earning his bachelor’s degree. He had just completed a four-month software developer internship at Shopify and opted to join the growing startup instead of returning to school.

READ MORE: Coding ‘boot camps’ promise fast, rewarding career in tech – for a price

He asked for a yearlong, full-time position, intending to return to school afterwards. Twelve months turned into nearly five years, and Brundage is now Shopify’s director of engineering for data platforms.

The skills needed to be a successful software developer change very rapidly, he said.

“This makes it remarkably hard to teach modern, relevant software development practice. There are many techniques that will be obsolete by the time a curriculum for them is finalized, taught and used by its graduates,” said Brundage in an email.

While he learned some very useful skills at school, Brundage said he found his on-the-job experience at Shopify helped him grow more, so he chose to stay put.

That probably happens with some of the University of Waterloo’s students, said Rocco Fondacaro, the school’s director of student and faculty relations for the co-op education and career action department.

The school doesn’t track how many computer science and computer engineering students abandon their studies and turn co-op placements into full-time jobs. But Fondacaro says it’s likely rare since the university does a good job of convincing students their degree is more than just a piece of paper to frame and hang on a wall.

“There’s a lot of additional learning that will serve them well through their entire life,” said Fondacaro, citing co-op opportunities and professional development courses.

As for Brundage, he doesn’t plan to re-enroll, saying his Shopify experience and references will likely qualify him for other future opportunities.

“I run a group of world-class engineers building world-class systems,” he said.

© 2016 The Canadian Press

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