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Ottawa urged to address skills shortage

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OTTAWA — Canada’s technology industry wants the federal government to spend at least $500-million to boost the pool of skilled graduates who are considered key to attracting — and keeping — the industry’s high-growth companies.

eMPOWR, a lobby group that includes representatives from tech companies and universities, says Ottawa should spend $100-million a year over the next five years on professors, labs and research projects so that Canada can produce more graduates in such areas as photonics, wireless technology and micro-electronics.

In the industry’s latest attempt to highlight Canada’s skills shortage, the group said universities produce less than one-third of the people the industry needs. The Information Technology Association of Canada estimates there are 35,000 unfilled jobs in the technology industry. Meanwhile, about 25 per cent of the 350 Canadian professors in these key fields are scheduled to retire by 2005.

Analysts say the availability of highly skilled workers is widely considered the key ingredient in trying to attract or nurture technology companies, but Canada — like its competitors — faces a dire skills shortage.

Kirk Mandy, vice-chairman of Ottawa-based Mitel Corp., said the impact of Canada’s brain drain will only get worse if universities aren’t given the resources to produce more graduates.

“That will certainly pose a difficulty for high-tech companies like Mitel Corp.,” he said yesterday during a press conference in Ottawa. “But it will be a tragedy for Canada.”

Jim Roche, president of Ottawa-based Tundra Semiconductor Corp. and eMPOWR’s chairman, said the money would be an excellent investment for taxpayers because it would allow a high-growth sector to expand and create jobs.

Both executives said their companies have reduced significantly the percentage of research they do in Canada, largely because of a lack of trained people.

Keith Parsonage, director-general of Industry Canada’s branch for the sector, said the government has taken no new positions on the issues raised by the lobby group, but that he doesn’t disagree with any of its suggestions. “It’s very difficult for the government to disagree with any of their proposals.”

Creating more graduates is the most important of three planks in the industry’s efforts to boost Canada’s pool of skilled workers. The industry, along with the federal government, also has been trying to shave the skills shortage by developing retraining programs and lowering barriers for potential immigrants who have skills that are in demand.

Mr. Parsonage said the federal government has been working with the technology industry to try to find solutions to the skills shortage for about two years.

The government has improved the environment for technology companies in recent years by reducing income and corporate taxes and creating a new tax structure for stock options, a common method of compensation within the tech sector.

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