Dearth of software savvy people bad news for the economy

Need for people who can tell computers what to do growing fast

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Roslyn KuninThe car would not go and had to be taken to the garage. No big deal, right? But it would take a day or so to get it fixed; not because it needed a part or a mechanic was unavailable, but because there was a software problem and the software guy won’t be in until tomorrow.

The good news is that the $0.80 Canadian dollar is beginning to have some positive influence on our economy. The car industry in Ontario is benefiting from the now favourable exchange rate and is on a hiring spree. As an example, one company, Linamar in Guelph, Ontario needs 1,200 workers to expand its manufacturing of fuel efficient transmissions.

The bad news is the software people are joining other trades that the car industry needs today but can’t find. The industry began moving into computer-assisted design and manufacturing back in the 20th century. Now, in the 21st century, automation, robotics and 3-D printing are how we make things. Workers in the automotive and other industries will not be making the cars and other products but maintaining the systems and robots that will be doing the actual manufacturing. They will be telling the computers what to do.

People who can tell computers what to do are widely needed. They may be called coders, system developers, computer engineers, among other titles. The need for them is growing fast. Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters (CME) says the demand for CNC (computer numerical control) engineers will more than double in just the next two years, with not enough people working in numerical control now.

Coders, systems engineers and others, however, won’t just be involved in making things. Services such as healthcare are becoming more and more systems based. To maintain our healthcare system over the long term, it will become increasingly automated. Our phones will increasingly report the state of our health to our medical providers who will also, increasingly, diagnose using the data. Our complete and up-to-date medical records will be in the Cloud, available to all who need them. Operations will even be able to be done remotely, in a manner reminiscent of video games.

But someone has to develop and maintain all these applications, systems and data bases and (no small feat) protect them for privacy and against hacking.

Will we have the people to manage the computers that will be generating our goods and services? There is reason for optimism. A search of ‘coding for kids in Vancouver’ yielded about 348,000 results. Camps to after-school coaching exist to teach little Olivia and Ethan to code. Kids can start as young as three years old with specially designed games.

Unfortunately, some companies providing coding training for kids may not be up to the task or offer good quality and value for money. Parents will have to do their homework to find the best options but, in the longer run, the market will sort things out.

Once in the public school system, options to learn coding and related disciplines are more limited but getting better all the time. More high schools are focusing on delivering the kind of education that will enable graduates to better meet the needs of our economy. An example is Rick Hansen Secondary, a high school in Abbotsford that has decided to focus on science, business and media. Both the subject matter and the learning methods will be designed to prepare students to function effectively in the fast changing world in which they will spend their working lives. Other schools are also being considered for more career-focused specializations. With a little luck, when today’s school kids enter the job market in 10 or 20 years, they will be prepared to do what will then be needed to be done.

But what do we do between now and then? A small proportion of current post-secondary students are taking computer-related courses. The broader related fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are highly promoted, but sparsely attended.

We may have to wait a while yet for that software guy (or gal) to keep our cars and many other aspects of our lives running smoothly.

Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker. 

© Troy Media


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