Dave O’Leary insights include as a Chair, CEO, CIO, VP, and much more as profiled here in an earlier blog. Dave is sharing his lessons below in this article, “Getting business and education collaboration right in the ICT sector.”

For the past thirty-seven years I have had the pleasure of working in the K to 12 and College system. As I close in on retirement in three weeks I find myself reflecting on those years. Over that time I have enjoyed working with many talented people and many public and private organizations and companies. In this post I share some of experiences I had with those companies that manage to provide real support to one of the best investments any country can make, an investment in the education of its citizens. In my home province of British Columbia, Canada a recent study confirmed that Colleges in this province contribute $7.8 billion to the economy. That is a $15.40 return on every public dollar spent by the provincial government to operate BC’s eleven Colleges. That is a solid return on investment by any measure.

In the early days of the Canadian College system the focus was on general access, trades and technology. With the development of the internet and the evolution of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to a business critical system, Colleges responded with significant growth in programming aimed at producing the necessary skilled ICT workers. Those efforts continue today as the system strives to produce enough appropriately skilled graduates to meet the growing demand. According to the Information and Communications Technology Council there is still much to do. Their Labour Market Information analysis predicts that by 2016 Canada will have to fill 106,000 ICT jobs and predicts a serious shortage in some critical skill areas. So how does this tie in with partnerships between Colleges and private companies? This scenario is not only a Canadian challenge. It is shared across the world and the competition for top talent is a global one. The country that gets the solution right will take the lead in this critical field.

ICT based companies rely on their people for their profit. Those people are highly skilled and produce the software, hardware, and services that drive ICT in all of its areas of impact. A significant number of these people are trained in Colleges and Institutes. For them to be productive and contribute to the success of their employer they need to be trained properly with skills aligned with company needs. The best way for a company to ensure they get access to graduates with the desired skills is to get directly involved in a collaboration with the training institutions themselves. An example from my own experience illustrates this.

In 2007 I was Dean for an ICT program at a Canadian College. In discussions with other ICT Deans from across the country it was clear that improvements needed to be made. Enrolment was declining despite the documented growth in job openings. Surveys showed young people did not see an ICT career as a cool choice, and the “dot com” hangover had parents wary of encouraging their kids to study in the field. For our part, four Colleges decided to try something different. We formed a collaborative and started work on a common ICT curriculum that was based on industry needs, used industry standard software and hardware and, new at the time, included a deliberate amount of content aimed to develop the ICT graduate’s business understanding and interpersonal communication skills. The program was (and still is) taught by faculty from all four institutions. Students at all four partner institutions participate using what we dubbed a “Cyberstructure Model” incorporating whatever technologies the students need to maximize their success. The model evolved until it settled on a combination of a Learning Management System (LMS) and a web meeting environment.

As the curriculum development team set out to build this innovative program we reached out to industry for advice and guidance. The team at Microsoft Canada was amazing in their quick and helpful response. We sent a quick email asking for input and the Microsoft Rep for Western Canada called us within five minutes. By the end of the call we had access to software, gaming platforms and input into some of the key skills graduates should have. We had similar responses from other companies such as Cisco Canada and with that support we created a program that continues today. But the relationship didn’t stop there.

Microsoft is a partner with Colleges and Institutes Canada and with their support and Microsoft’s generosity, Deans of ICT from across Canada met in Mississauga and worked to refine and refocus our approach to preparing right skilled graduates for the ICT sector. As Chair of that National Council of Deans of ICT, I was privy to the amount of time and resources Microsoft put into hosting the day and making and the ongoing work of the Council a success. This is but one example of a company supporting Colleges and Institutes to train the graduates they themselves need. I can provide many more than space allows here.

In a very short time ICT has gone from a niche area of study to a mission critical foundation of business and society in all areas. Colleges and other post-secondary training and education institutions are striving to provide the right training for this sector. Our experience proves to us that close collaboration between business and education is critical if we are to get that training right and ensure continued high returns on tax payers’ investment in the post-secondary sector.