Nowadays it’s great to be an IT professional looking for a job in Québec. But for companies looking for talent, it’s a different story.
At the end of 2021, the sector committee of TECHNOCompétence identified around 13,000 vacancies in IT – around 4,000 of them were waiting for “people who don’t exist”, according to Stéphanie Carle Tavera, managing director of the organisation. These statistics don’t tell the whole story: the number of unadvertised jobs, the increase in retirements, and the growing business demands caused by the changing economy are all unknown factors.
What is certain is that the market is out of balance, says Carle Tavera: “Overall, there is a quantitative and qualitative deficit between the positions to be filled and the qualifications of the people available.”
And that overheating is set to get worse: According to CompTIA forecasts, the total number of IT jobs in Quebec will reach 288,905 in 2022, up 4,061 from 2021. But who will fill them?
The magnitude of the IT recruitment problem
Benoit De Cesare
While the pressure is being felt across all sectors, some specialty areas suffer from a particularly acute shortage: cloud computing, security, data science, AI, and project management. “Programmers are also in high demand, but not that hard to find,” says Benoit De Césaré, executive vice president of recruitment firm Randstad.
This shortage affects not only IT companies, but also organizations that need their services. Sylvain Viau, Founding President of the CIO Group and President of the Montréal Chapter of the Canadian Association of CIOs (CIOCAN), gives the example of the transition to cloud computing: “It’s a very demanding process. The existing solution providers can no longer do everything – and neither can we.”
The law of supply and demand is relentless: the shortage of skilled workers is causing turnover rates to skyrocket. While Carle Tavera believes that IT has only just caught up with the mobility of other sectors since the pandemic, some specific areas such as security are in chaos. “Previously turnover rates were 35-40% per year,” says Viau, “now it’s 50%. People come and go. In one case, I’ve been my fourth account manager since January.”
By eliminating borders, remote working is also forcing Québec companies to compete with giants that used to have little talent in the local market because they didn’t have offices in Montréal or Québec City. “International players have higher budgets because the Canadian dollar is worth less than the US dollar,” says De Césaré. The exchange rate isn’t the only benefit Microsoft and other big players have: For some professionals, the prospect of spending a few weeks each year on the West Coast is very enticing, says Viau.
Features of Quebec
While population aging and rising IT demand are global phenomena, some Québec-specific factors are compounding the problem.
“Immigration regulations are too complex,” said Michel Verreault, executive director of the Center of Development in Insurance and Financial Services, an organization that includes insurers headquartered in the Quebec City area. 40 percent of the companies that responded to a recent Québec Technology Association survey expect governments to help them, for example by speeding up the issuance of work permits.
There are also concerns about the new language Bill 96. De Césaré thinks it’s too early to predict the impact but says monolingual English-speaking professionals are already considering leaving Montréal. “Everyone is still trying to understand the implications of the new law,” he says.
In the context of labor shortages, the Quebec government’s industrial strategies could also backfire on local businesses. Research and development subsidies, tax credits for video game production, and benefits for AI companies all attract international investors competing for the same talent. “The vacuum is created by Québec’s willingness to subsidize IT jobs,” says Viau.
How to recruit in a hot market
In this environment, organizations that are successful at attracting new talent are those that are flexible.
“Employers no longer have the luxury of asking for whatever they want,” says De Césaré. He advises his customers to be clear about their core needs and what they are willing to give up. Companies also need to know how to sell their projects to candidates, budget for overbids, and most importantly, act quickly to prevent a more agile competitor from clipping them. “We can no longer afford a three or four-week application process,” he says.
This need for flexibility is also reflected in international recruiting and the increase in remote work. Some local companies are recruiting from France, the Maghreb countries, Sub-Saharan Africa – wherever there are French speaking specialists. And whether these rare gems live in Alma or Abidjan, moving to headquarters is out of the question. “We take them where they are,” says Verreault, even if it’s just an occasional visit.
The competition also requires companies to be highly innovative when recruiting new employees. Insurance companies that are members of Verreault’s organization have contacted software development departments at Laval University and various Cegeps to promote careers and projects in the insurance industry. They have also developed training programs that allow some of their employees, especially women whose jobs are being impacted by digital transformation, to acquire new knowledge and pursue new careers.
This type of direct intervention corresponds to Carle Tavera’s recommendation for the entire economy: “We must introduce a learning culture in our organizations” in order to promote horizontal career paths and thus employee retention.
Internships integrated into post-secondary education programs are also an effective recruitment strategy, but are not without risk for candidates. “The danger,” says Verreault, “is that the company will hire the student full-time before the end of the program. Without a degree, it becomes more difficult to advance professionally.”
The hunt for rare gems
Companies also need to be flexible to meet candidate expectations. The daily La Presse recently reported on the case of Tootelo Innovation, which offers benefits ‘à la carte’ – including annual leave of up to eight weeks on hire.
“Flexibility is a concept that is unique to each individual,” says De Césaré. “Flexible hours, remote work, strong benefits, international travel — all of these factors can win the battle.”
A 2021 report by TECHNOCompétences shows that 23% of IT professionals aim for a balanced life first, 23% aim for a high salary and 16% prioritize professional development. But the pay bubble is widening, giving employers endless headaches. The salary requirements needed to fill some key positions can impact business priorities and create internal equity issues, De Césaré says.
According to the HR specialist, today’s candidates even take the time to research the companies they’re applying to. Their search strategies vary according to experience: juniors rely on the media image of companies, seniors on word of mouth. In both cases, “the company’s brand comes first,” says De Césaré.
Long-term solutions to the IT crunch
All projections indicate that Québec’s IT shortage will continue for a number of years. Could it be undone?
Randstad VP De Césaré is adamant: “We need an influx of qualified talent, whether through the school curriculum or through immigration.”
Verreault favors the creation of online or hybrid training courses that would allow people aged 30-35 with families and out of large centers to acquire IT skills without having to travel. He is also committed to developing accelerated education for critical professions based on the DEC-BAC bridges, which will allow students to earn college and university degrees in a year less than normal.
Viau recommends easing the pressure by tightening criteria for government R&D grants to prevent multinationals from using the money to produce intellectual property that won’t stay in Quebec.
Carle Tavera envisages a three-pronged strategy. First, integrate technology into basic knowledge, starting as early as elementary school. Second, make the market more resilient by welcoming skilled immigrants, encouraging professionals to delay retirement, and finding ways to make operations sustainable despite staff turnover. Third, make the digital transition a real business strategy that would allow better alignment with hiring needs.
“The Québec ecosystem also has a growing number of self-employed people, especially the more experienced ones who are in high demand,” she says. “It’s a trend we need to keep an eye on.”