Solving the coder shortage

Posted on December 17, 2019 | By Kim Hart MacNeill | 0 Comments

Atlantic Canadian businesses seeking to modernize face mounting tech job vacancies. Here’s how to find the staff you need now

When it came time for Side Door co-founder Laura Simpson to hire a coder, the issue wasn’t simply that she couldn’t find a candidate with the right fit locally, she couldn’t find anyone. The Halifax-based startup’s online platform matches entertainers with hosts to produce concerts in intimate venues, and handles ticketing and payouts.

“We were having trouble finding people around here,” says Simpson. “It’s really hard to draw people away from their hometown. I think we have to be a bit bigger and they have to be at a point in their lives where they can move.”

She posted the job on Angel List, a U.S.-based website connecting startups and tech job seekers, with a focus on remote workers. Relatively quickly, Simpson hired a coder in Atlanta, Georgia. “When you’re a startup, hiring in general is a challenge,” she says. “You never have enough time or money to do anything so you’re just looking for the quickest best solution.”

Canada’s in a labour shortage that’s poised to keep growing as more baby boomers retire than there are job seekers to take their seats. The tech sector is particularly hard hit as established brick and mortar companies seek coders, programmers and developers to automate traditional systems.

According to Statistics Canada, between 2018 and 2019 the number of job vacancies grew 9.6 per cent (to 506,000) and the job vacancy rate hit 3.1 per cent, its fourth consecutive quarter that it topped three per cent. The job vacancy rate is the sum of all occupied and vacant jobs. Vacancies in the professional, scientific and technical services sector grew by 28 per cent to 9,100 nationally. The sector has the second highest number of vacancies nationally.

Half of the Atlantic Canadian entrepreneurs surveyed by BDC last year said they had difficulty hiring. As a result, respondents reported that they’ve asked employees to work longer hours and raised wages, while limiting company growth.

Elementary and high school curriculums are adding coding programs and the enrolment of international students at post-secondary levels has increased. Together, these initiatives offer hope for a future trend reversal, but Atlantic Canadian business owners need solutions now.

For Simpson, the answer was a remote employee, but she says it was a temporary fix. “The biggest challenge with remote staff is building trust,” Simpson says. “We tried to do that with video calls but ultimately they’re somewhere else and the rest of the team is in one office.”

Missing out on water-cooler bonding and difficulty recognizing when remote employees are struggling are two hurdles Side Door experienced. That aside, she says she’d hire remotely again, and currently has a developer working on a short-term contract in Vancouver.

“A lot of the things that make remote work not go well are things that people aren’t open to talking about, like saying they feel lonely, even if that may be a very strong emotion that might keep them from doing their own work. You have to check in with people constantly,” she says.

For business owners who prefer face time with employees, there are a number of programs operating in Atlantic Canada to help you find the workers you seek.

Canada Learning Code is a national charitable organization operating in 35 communities, including six Atlantic Canadian chapters across the four provinces. The organization started in 2011 with a mandate to increase the number of women coders, but in 2017 expanded to serve all learners from youth to established professionals.

“There is a gap in the labour market for new positions for programming and coding skills, especially in Atlantic Canada. We know a lot of people are retiring and younger people are moving out of the region,” says Jen Liu, Halifax chapter lead. “Our goal is to have coding education available to everybody. We don’t want payment to be one of the barriers.”

One-day, beginner-friendly workshops cover introductory HTML & CSS, WordPress, Python, Ruby, Responsive Design, Photoshop and more, and are available for $60 or a pay-what-you-can basis. Canada Learning Code also offers a more intensive seven-week, 35-hour program for learners who want to start a career in coding.

In addition to learning to code, the face-to-face nature of the program offers participants an opportunity to build personal skills, something that’s lost via the many online, self-directed courses on the market.

Liu says Atlantic business owners should introduce themselves to their local chapter. The volunteer instructors and mentors working in the program all come from university computer science programs or the tech industry, and can recommend recent program participants for jobs.

Raghav Sampangi, director of the Master of Applied Computer Science program at Dalhousie University volunteers with Canada Learning Code. He suggests employers attend the organization’s events. “Make it known to the people attending that you’re looking to fill these opportunities. I’ve met with a lot of people who started at Canada Learning Code having attended one of those workshops and then pursuing coding as a serious (career) option.”

Another opportunity Liu suggests is sending existing staff to Canada Learning Code’s bi-weekly evening and weekend workshops to build the skills needed to transition into a development job. She says the organization will even partner with businesses to offer private workshops.

Venture for Canada (VFC), another national charity, works the other side of the equation, helping university students and grads find work with companies. Its Atlantic Internship Program placed 305 interns since starting in August 2018.

While the program serves students from all university and college disciplines, developers, computer science, IT and data analytics represent about 20 per cent of VFC enrolments, says Jamie Proctor Boyce, the program’s partnerships manager.

“A big reason VFC exists is to help start-ups and SMBs (small to medium-sized businesses) get into the co-op and internship game. We know that over 80 per cent of student talent nationally is sucked up by big firms. That’s across all disciplines,” Proctor Boyce says.

In preparation for their four-month internships, students participate in 20 hours of training with VFC to build soft skills and focus on professional readiness. The program de-risks hiring students for employers by offering a wage subsidy program. To be eligible, employers must be located in Atlantic Canada, employ between one and 500 people, and offer the student an opportunity related to business, innovation or STEM.

“We try to make it simple for employers to access candidates and the funding. You can hire from our pool or you can bring your own student. As long as the student meets our core eligibility we can make that work,” says Proctor Boyce.

Dalhousie is another skills shortage solutions provider, offering four to eight month co-op programs for computer science students. Co-op length depends on the nature of the position, but Raghav Sampangi says that many employers start with a shorter term and extend it after seeing what a co-op student brings to their business.

Sampangi also suggests businesses partner with a university or business incubator to organize a hackathon, where students and businesses engage to find a solution to a problem over a few hours or an entire weekend.

In March, Dalhousie’s Shiftkey Labs, an innovation sandbox, and Analyze Re, a reinsurance analytics firm, hosted a hackathon for students to develop a working prototype to analyze medical data. Students practiced their skills and won prizes, while Analyze Re came away with code. “If you’re looking for a ‘right now’ solution that’s a great way to do it,” Sampangi says.

The competition for new grads is hot, but Dalhousie’s Sampangi says Atlantic universities are ready and willing to work with employers who want to hire students. “We have a lot of students saying there are no jobs here and on the other hand we have employers saying we have jobs and can’t find people,” says Sampangi. “This is a problem that would be easily solved if the employers would reach out to universities.”


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