The tech talent crunch is very real but a Microsoft Canada executive offers a strategy to tackle it head on.It involves harnessing the potential of new Canadians, women and Gen Y.
September 25, 2008

Kavita Gosyne

Fact: Canadian graduates with computer science, math and engineering degrees are rapidly declining.

If this trend continues there will be more than 90,000 unfilled positions in the next three to five years, cautions Sharif Khan, vice-president, human resources at Mississauga, Ont.-based Microsoft Canada Co.

Our inability to fill these jobs will cost us around $125,000 per year, he says.

“I don’t think this [talent shortage] was anticipated,” said Khan in his keynote address at TorontoTech Week on Wednesday.

TechWeek is a multi-day conference that provides a forum for technology professionals in the Greater Toronto Area to share insights, challenges, and best practices.

Khan did all of these in his presentation.

He emphasized the importance of equipping the workforce – especially certain segments – with the skills they need to succeed.

This, he said, is a priority for Microsoft, which is proactively reaching out to three key groups: new Canadians, women, and Gen Y.

“We need to go find them, we can’t wait for people to come to us anymore.”

New Canadians

Khan highlighted various kinds of challenges faced by new immigrants in the job market.

Wage disparity is one of them.

By 2011, he said, the average immigrant man would earn up to 48 per cent less than his Canada-born counterpart.

He said with many companies insisting on “Canadian experience” immigrants also witness their qualifications and experience – obtained in their country of origin – being minimized or undervalued.

“We need to challenge this idea of Canadian experience.”

The Microsoft Canada executive also touched on the issue of under employment – as it affects immigrants and new Canadians.

He rued that while companies hire new Canadians into entry-level positions, there is still a great reluctance to offer them managerial roles.

He urged businesses here to take advantage of the valuable skills new Canadians bring to the workplace.

Khan cited the example of Microsoft’s special mentoring program for employees who have recently arrived in Canada. They are paired with a mentor to help them make a smooth transition into a new work environment.

Actively recruiting skilled professionals from other countries is another way to proactively tackle the talent crunch, said Khan.

He advocated a “roll out the red carpet” strategy – that includes relocation packages for qualified overseas professionals, as well as support and resources for their families.

“We need to maximize the potential of new Canadians and to be more aggressive in bringing them in.”

A fairer deal for women?

Although women make up 50 per cent of Canada’s population only 30 per cent venture into the IT industry and in senior positions there are fewer than 10 per cent, said Khan.

To counter this, he said, Microsoft has devised programs and strategies to proactively reach out to women via targeted searches – and more specifically through mentoring and networking.

He said something as simple as having a woman on the interview panel could give the female interviewee a sense of inclusion, instead of a feeling that she’s trying to get into an all boys’ club.

Khan also talked about DigiGirlz – a “grassroots” mentoring method Microsoft has developed for young girls.

The company’s research shows many girls begin to opt out of math and science by grade seven and eight. DigiGirlz, he said, specifically helps girls in this age group to better understand what technology is about.

“We talk to them about the industry and educate them in hopes of changing any preconceived notions they might have.”

GenY motivators

Other pre-conceived notions that may have to be modified have to do with perceptions about Gen Y, Khan suggested.

“Many see this generation as a self-absorbed, lazy, and the product of over-indulgent parents.”

In reality, he said, quite the opposite is true.

Microsoft found that this group on average scores 10 per cent higher in productivity than any other. “They’re constantly ‘on.’ They’re constantly communicating,” says Khan.

He said this group is drawn to helping the community and having a sense of purpose.

Khan talked about Microsoft’s new policy that allows every employee five paid days to go out into the community and help any charity of their choice.

This practice, he said, provides a great incentive to the Gen Y group.

The option of taking unpaid leave is also important to many in this group.

“They would even resign in order to take a four month trip around the world.”

A company that will allow them to take an unpaid leave and take them back when they return is a very attractive quality for this generation, said Khan.

Progressive Workplace

Khan’s characterized a progressive workplace as one which includes flexibility, job sharing and an increasing number of part-time employees.

“It’s about being free of time and space.”

He cited the example of Europe, where part time employees and job sharers make up 10 to 20 per cent of their population.

Khan said it took him a year to push through part time workers.

“It was a very long educational process,” he says, explaining how this kind of work flexibility creates job satisfaction, increased productivity and attracts great talent.

Khan says while he sees potential in social networking sites such as Second Life, the idea of using it for meetings or job sharing hasn’t taken root yet.

It may come over the next five years, but it’s not for today’s workplace.