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Report on Colleges, Fall 2010

Colleges focus on hot areas in IT

Students get the opportunity to do real work in their fields

Globe and Mail Update

When Lukas Blakk arrived at Seneca College as a student in 2005, she knew little about open source software. She had enrolled at the Toronto-based college expecting to get a programming job in a bank or perhaps start her own business. But Seneca's School of Computer Studies has close ties to the open source software community. Once introduced to the field, Ms. Blakk says, "I immediately steered in that direction and never looked back."

When she graduated from Seneca in 2009, that choice took her to California, where she now works full-time for the Mozilla Foundation, the open-source initiative behind the Firefox web browser and Thunderbird e-mail software.

Ms. Blakk says she got that job thanks to experience and exposure gained while at Seneca. Students are involved in real-world open-source development projects, working on software code for real-world products. "There's Seneca students' code in Firefox that's shipping right now," says Evan Weaver, chair of the School of Computer Studies, "and there's a lot more that's going to be in Firefox 4, that comes out in a few months."

Their instructors, some of whom have close connections to prominent open-source organizations like Mozilla and Red Hat Software, help students connect with others working in open source. This is one college's way of trying to ensure that its students graduate with skills — and connections — that will serve them well as they enter the information technology job market.

"Basically, we got to act like we were really software developers already while we were still in school," says Ms. Blakk.

Students in the digital media program at Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton get similar opportunities, says Steve Chattargoon, NAIT's chair of digital media and IT. With consulting contracts and jobs producing music and training videos while still in school, he says, "those students are busy like you wouldn't believe."

Dean Vitisin, Katrina Lee and Igor Teterski were students in NAIT's Bachelor of Technology in Technology Management program when, as a classroom assignment, they developed a way for construction company PCL Constructors Inc. to track expensive equipment using radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags and the Global Positioning System. They turned that experience into a consulting company, Triple-i Technologies Inc.

Triple-i is currently housed in a business incubator run by NAIT's applied research and technology transfer unit, NovaNAIT. Mr. Vitisin, now Triple-i's president, says the incubator provides facilities support services and valuable advice. Stuart Cullum, executive director of NovaNAIT, says NAIT students started two of the 12 companies now housed there.

According to Paul Swinwood, president of the Information and Communications Technology Council, a non-profit body concerned with labour market issues, colleges are doing a good job of that, and the practical skills that college diplomas provide are exactly what IT job-seekers need most in Canada today. In fact, he says, while university degrees are essential for many jobs, "we're seeing an awful lot of university-educated people going back to college" to update their skills.

Job-readiness is even more of a concern for colleges than for universities, says Lane Trotter, senior vice-president, academic at Fanshawe College in London, Ont. "One of the things which differentiates colleges it that our programs are created specifically to get students into employment directly," he says.

Kevin Cudihee, program head of part-time studies at the British Columbia Institute of Technology's School of Computing in Burnaby, B.C., says some of his part-time students are university computer-science graduates upgrading their practical skills.

Fanshawe's Mr. Trotter says one of the biggest opportunities today is in programming computer games, and the college recently launched a program in advanced game development to take advantage of that. The college wants to create a centre of excellence in game programming, he says, and there is strong demand for those skills in the London area, home to companies such as Digital Extremes, maker of games such as Unreal Tournament, Dark Sector and BioShock 2.

Game programming is also a focus for Humber College in Toronto, which started a game programming program three years ago. Demand for these skills will grow in the Toronto area, says Gary Lima, associate dean of Humber's School of Media Studies and Information Technology — he anticipates that large French game developer Ubisoft, will alone be hiring 800 people.

Over all, the demand for IT skills is not what it was in the boom times of the late 1990s, but much better than in the bust that ensued in 2002-2003. "Things were really bleak for a few years there," Mr. Weaver says, "but we seem to be in a recovery."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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