Canada's Technology 'Gold Rush' Not Producing Workers Fast Enough

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TORONTO — Three years ago, Erik Dohnberg was working at the Genius Bar at an Apple store in London, Ont.

He'd been there for 10 months after graduating with an information and media studies degree from Western University when he decided he wanted more.

With the intention of starting up his own business, Dohnberg signed up for a nine-week boot camp at Bitmaker Labs, a web developer training school in Toronto.

Within two weeks of completing the boot camp, Dohnberg had 16 job interviews and received two job offers. One of them was from Bitmaker Labs.

Dohnberg said he doesn't regret going to university, but also doesn't think it prepared him to get a real job. Most of his classmates went on to graduate studies.

"It was education for the sake of more education," said Dohnberg, now an admissions manager at Bitmaker.

"I can write a hell of an essay on Star Trek and Star Wars fan fiction but really, that's irrelevant to practical skills. I'm a good writer but that's about it."

lighthouse labs

A tutor helps a student at Lighthouse Labs, which offers bootcamps on coding, in Toronto on Thursday, March 17, 2016. (Canadian Press photo)

Tech skills programs like the ones at Bitmaker Labs have been sprouting up over the past few years in response to a tech talent shortage in Canada. It's a problem that has been bubbling to the surface, as more startups open up shop and try to recruit from an already-small pool of Canadian coders and developers.

A report released earlier this month by the Information and Communications Technology Council estimates that 218,000 tech jobs will be created in Canada by 2020. It warns that it could cost the economy billions of dollars in lost productivity, tax revenues and GDP if Canada doesn't address the tech skills gap.

"It is imperative that this challenge is tackled, especially if Canada wants to secure its place as a competitive leader in the global economy," the 57-page report says.

"(Universities) are not focused on education. They're focused on grades and a piece of paper at the end..."

At Bitmaker, courses range from weekend boot camps to an intensive nine-week course for $9,000. The school believes anyone can learn how to code and its students include everyone from college and university dropouts to ex-engineers, investment bankers and skilled labourers. Bitmaker has also enrolled computer engineer and science graduates looking to update their skills.

Dohnberg said such boot camps are still not producing workers fast enough to meet the demands of the ever-evolving tech industry, making it vital for colleges and universities to tailor their programs for jobs in the sector.

"(Universities) are not focused on education. They're focused on grades and a piece of paper at the end, because for decades, that has been the way you get a job and open up new opportunities," he said.

"Now that's not enough. Universities need to start understanding how people actually learn and come up with innovative ways to imparting education to those people."

Vancouver-based Lighthouse Labs, which also runs web developer boot camps, sees its role as completely separate from that of a post-secondary institution.

"We consider ourselves complementary to university. We're not trying to undercut it or disrupt it," said Jeremy Shaki, Lighthouse chief executive and self-proclaimed "chief talking officer."

"The challenge is this industry changes pretty quickly, and the way universities are set up — they're not meant to reflect the industry needs at their current state. They're meant to provide a deeper learning so people have a solid academic experience."

The eight-week boot camp at Lighthouse accepts one out of three applicants, with the deciding factor being motivation, a coding background and a willingness to do hard work.

"We don't take people who are in it for the gold rush," said Shaki.

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Higher Salaries Elsewhere

The tech industry is also struggling to keep workers in Canada, something he says is due to a lack of culture here for developers and coders, which makes it easier for them to be lured to hot spots like Silicon Valley and New York where salaries are higher.

Shaki estimates that a starting salary for a web developer in Toronto would be around $46,000, whereas in San Francisco, the average beginning salary is about $90,000.

Langis Roy, dean of graduate studies at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Ont., says post-secondary institutions are aware that they need to adapt to a more technological world because that's where the jobs are. That includes everything from providing students with training on professional software, encouraging entrepreneurship and setting up tech incubators.

"We need to serve the industry and market-driven needs," said Roy.

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