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A Digital Future for Northeastern Ontario

By 15 May 2018 No Comments

By Nathan Snider, ICTC’s Program Manager of Indigenous Outreach & Programming and Adjunct Professor of Business at Canadore and Cambrian College, is an advocate for digital literacy initiatives, tech. education and collaborative learning practices with Canada’s indigenous community.

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I’m always pleased when I finish teaching a program where I feel empowered by the growth of my students and the development of local industry. The Small Business Digitization Initiative (SBDI), which I helped manage and instruct as a member of the team at the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), was no different.[1] SBDI was the product of a need to help bridge the employment and education gap for young Canadian students in the ICT sector. The program was designed to provide both the practical and theoretical digital skills required for youth to be effective. The initiative provided two primary conduits for learning: in my region, a twelve week in-class instructional period, followed by experiential workplace training with high-need businesses for the remaining twelve weeks. The students (all either unemployed, underemployed, underserviced or new Canadian citizens) leveraged SBDI to then improve both their own job prospects and to help the small businesses take a long-overdue step in adopting new and practical technologies.

I facilitated the Northeastern Ontario iteration of the SBDI program (one of three locations), based in North Bay.  It seems clear to me that my experience with the SBDI program may also strike a nerve outside our modest region, and perhaps lay a finger on the pulse of our national digital landscape.

One of the largest perceived drains to our Northeastern Ontario landscape is the supposed lack of commercial opportunity for skilled and motivated youth in the digital skills sector. The reality? It’s quite different. In the case of the SBDI program, over twenty organizations stepped forward to welcome a student-in-training into their business’ daily operations, with the goals of recommending digital changes, developing efficiencies and creating opportunities for increased revenue. The program resulted in innovative thinking, increased accountability and a determination from all parties to influence change in a positive and constructive manner.

In a previous article focusing on seeking opportunities for tech-savvy youth, The Northern (Digital) Climate, I advocated for accountability from community and industry leaders. ICTC’s SBDI program in Northeastern Ontario was a breath of fresh air for an area that’s seen a decrease in value placed on the IT/comm education sector. We’re witnessing on a daily basis Canada’s urgency in filling a skill-gap in our growing global digital economy, yet seemingly stepping backwards from innovative educational strategies. A 2016 report by ICTC, Digital Talent: Road to 2020 and Beyond, claimed “despite the importance of technology adoption to business sector innovation and competitiveness, Canada’s adoption rate remains low compared to our international counterparts… This is particularly vital for [small businesses] that acutely need skilled digital talent, but have limited means to train or find a job-ready workforce to respond to the fast changing reality of the global economic landscape” (ICTC, March 2016). While some progress has been made since then, there is still much work to be done (see “Recommendations” in the January 2018 ICTC report The Digital Talent Dividend: Shifting Gears in a Changing Economy).

Organizations like SBDI participant Mincon (formally Rotacan), a manufacturer of hard-rock drilling tools for the mining, exploration, geothermal and oil-gas sectors, were able to identify digital operational efficiencies to increase their regional internal communication processes. As a result, this effort reduced lost-time in manual CNC framework edits, as well as live changes from the design office to the manufacturing floor. This had a subsequent impact of supporting an increase in product development time, allowing the business to respond to increased orders on an international scale.

The SBDI program highlighted the importance of digital adoption and of building the capacity of organizations to enable them to compete in a global economy. Through this experience I found both students and businesses looking to embrace a digital future. Students, I found, discovered the program independently, whether through connections with their professional networks, past educators or public institutions—proving where there’s a will, there’s a way. The businesses in the program relished the opportunity to have motivated and skilled youth recommending positive changes. The opportunity for growth when small businesses embrace the emerging digital future cannot be overstated: the ICTC policy research paper Presenting Canada to the World: The Case for International Investment as a Means of Advancing Technology Ecosystem Development, Accelerating Scale Up and Promoting Sustainable Innovation reveals how start-ups and small businesses “are extremely instrumental in altering and restructuring traditional corporate environments, while simultaneously espousing a culture that is inherently linked with creativity and innovation” (ICTC, July 2017).

Given our region’s limited IT/comm education investment, I’ve become astounded by those who persevere. I’m inspired by those young leaders who, against the odds and with limited opportunities, source their own path forward to stay in the North while maintaining a commitment to continued education. These youth are actively seeking technology and innovation-driven programs like SBDI and are forging a different path through programs like the Youth Entrepreneurship Placement Program (YEPP). These passionate young leaders are leveraging experiences and limited opportunities to open doors and create new opportunities for themselves.

Our goal in Northeastern Ontario cannot be to sit idly by and watch other regions capitalize on digital and/or innovative trends that entice our youth. Instead, we need to embrace our region’s modest size and leverage the net positives we can provide. We need to both strengthen our region’s insufficient IT/comm education sector and continue to connect the organizations and individuals that are pushing ahead in this challenging landscape.

Whether we consider a future in the dynamic usages of Blockchain or AI/VR/AR, we can lay the foundation for a small but incredibly powerful and specific base for potential growth. Doing so may organically cast aside any perceived net negatives of residing in Northeastern Ontario, while simultaneously engaging a new youth market through powerful, dynamic and quality educational opportunities. With ICTC programs like SBDI and the current Digital Dash, alongside non-profit and community-supporting agencies like iion, SoftAuthor, MetricAid and various others actively promoting the IT/comm sector throughout our region, we have a tremendously supportive framework to encourage, motivate and empower young minds right here at home.

[1] SBDI was funded in part by Ontario’s Ministry of Economic Development and Growth and was delivered in partnership with Savoir-faire Linux. A recent article by Savoir-faire Linux on the SBDI program can be found here.

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