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Author: Cathy Simpson, Originally published in the Telegraph Journal


Frank McKenna, benefactor of the McKenna Institute at UNB, says an investment from IBM Canada will enable the institute to upskill up to 40,000 New Brunswickers over the next five years.

Photo: Bruce Hallihan/The Daily Gleaner

Cathy Simpson | Commentary

I moved to Saint John in 1990 to start a management trainee job at NBTel. My plan was to stay for two years and then go back to Nova Scotia, where I had lived for most of my formative years.

Little did I know how big accepting that NBTel opportunity was as I started on a career path in the telecom and information technology (IT) business. I took a chance on New Brunswick, and this bet really paid off.

I have been in the tech industry for 32 years and count myself fortunate every single day as I lead TechImpact and chair the board of the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation (NBIF). This one career-defining decision has allowed me to be part of the robust IT start up ecosystem in New Brunswick.

I believe digital transformation is a truly innovative opportunity for New Brunswick. Not only must we embrace this change, we must work hard to ensure our economy and our workforce keeps up with the relentless pace of change. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the true power of technology during a time when we were forced to change our methods and process to continue to learn and work. It has created more buy-in and acceptance of technology and advanced our usage by a decade, if not more.

Big innovation opportunities require business planning, technology strategies and roadmaps to implementation. All of this requires leadership and tech talent. Highly skilled professionals are required to ensure our economy remains productive and competitive. IT-related employment has surged in recent years, and we anticipate thousands of more positions needing to be filled in the coming years to fulfill the demand for businesses in the province. A strong talent pipeline will ensure the New Brunswick economy evolves and provincially based businesses remain competitive and thrive.

With a global shortage of technical talent, the competition to retain high-tech talent is fierce. We are witnessing increased pressure on wages and corporate value propositions and retention strategies to reduce churn in staffing like never before. More importantly, it means employers must be open to changing the way business is conducted, including hybrid and remote working opportunities.

There are nearly 10,000 people who work in IT or IT-related jobs in New Brunswick alone. We're not just talking software, hardware or consulting companies like Innovatia, Mariner Innovations, Introhive, Siemens and others.

We need to think more broadly of the IT workforce. It's IT professionals at companies like McCain's, J.D. Irving Limited, Atlantic Lotto, Medavie, Uni and others with large and diverse technology needs for their day-to-day operations.

The IT sector is a major economic force. IT jobs typically pay much more than the average New Brunswick job. Salaries from IT careers in New Brunswick are estimated at $700 million per year. Within the broader IT sector, more than 4,000 people work directly in the IT professional services industry, IT product companies or start-ups in nearly 300 companies. This is a rapidly growing sector. Revenues soared by 49 per cent from 2015 to nearly $600 million in 2019, resulting in an increase of 29 per cent to the sector's direct GDP contribution to the province. These companies within the IT sector now represent $400 million in export revenue annually.

This data is compelling. These companies need to grow and if they can't find the talent locally, they will look outside the New Brunswick.

So, what we are doing about it?

Last year, Brunswick News columnist David Campbell (of Jupia Consulting) and I were asked to develop an IT Workforce Growth Strategy for New Brunswick. This strategy built on the work of the Labour Force Adjustment Committee struck by the Government of New Brunswick and led by TechImpact in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. This private and public sector committee was directed to review the IT industry and the skills it needs to grow, amongst other things.

In doing this work, we engaged with more than 100 stakeholders. One clear theme emerged: A skilled digital workforce is fundamental to economic prosperity. It was equally clear that establishing a well-researched, well-thought- out IT workforce growth strategy was essential to supporting the IT sector's growth and the New Brunswick economy.

Our IT workforce growth plan is focused on four pillars, with numerous projects and initiatives. These pillars are understanding our workforce supply and demand requirements, talent acceleration, talent pipeline development and recruitment.

It is incredibly exciting and important to know is that there is much work underway already. Last week, we announced, in partnership with the McKenna Institute and the University of New Brunswick's College of Extended Learning that registration is now open to apply for our first coding/developing boot camp. It is being offered part-time and it includes tuition support for those who are eligible.

On Wednesday, a five-year partnership with IBM, UNB and the McKenna Institute was announced that will contribute bilingual upskilling and reskilling programs that will prepare tens of thousands of New Brunswickers for the jobs of tomorrow in cybersecurity, quantum computing, cognitive AI, design thinking and digital marketing. The partnership extends to not-for-profits as well, particularly those that focus on groups such as underserved youth, the Indigenous community, women and immigrants. These are only two of many direct initiatives under the talent acceleration pillar.

Solving the talent shortage challenge is going to take innovation, idea generation and collaboration as we continue on this growth path. It will be with partners like all the post- secondary institutions, the McKenna Institute at UNB, the economic development agencies and business councils - and, of course, our provincial and federal government partners.

The IT ecosystem partners are taking decisive steps to both protect and enhance our economy by addressing our digital workforce. We need to move swiftly and with common purpose to take advantage of the opportunities presented to us by expanding our IT workforce to address the challenges we face and remain competitive on a global stage.

No single organization is responsible for IT workforce growth. There are a wide range of stakeholders doing incredible work and TechImpact is uniquely positioned to help bring those stakeholders together to support our talent implementation and growth strategy.

See what I mean? We really are at an inflection point.

I do not consider myself a betting person but I'd be the first to go all in on this skilling and digital transformation opportunity for New Brunswick and all of Atlantic Canada.

Cathy Simpson is the CEO of TechImpact.

Cathy Simpson, CEO of TechImpact

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