July 21, 2024

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The best college programs for today’s job market

Cyberattacks are now front-page political news: last April, after pro-Russian hackers claimed responsibility for temporarily taking down Hydro-Québec’s website, the Prime Minister pledged that such attacks would not “cause us to rethink our unequivocal stance of doing whatever it takes for as long as it takes to support Ukraine.” Meanwhile, ransomware attacks—where a bad actor holds sensitive information or critical infrastructure hostage—have spiked sharply since our lives moved even more online. In the first year of the pandemic, ransomware attacks rose by nearly 500 per cent.

That increase is a big reason why (ISC)², a non-profit association of certified cybersecurity professionals, surveyed 1,000 C-suite leaders across five countries and found that even though 85 per cent of them expected to conduct layoffs during the economic downturn, their cybersecurity teams would be the least affected. In fact, (ISC)² estimates that the world needs 3.4 million more trained cybersecurity experts to join the 4.7 million already working in the field.

Anyone interested in answering the five-alarm call for more cybersecurity professionals might look first to the British Columbia Institute of Technology, which has multiple paths into the field. Most commonly, BCIT undergrads start with a background in computing, either with the computer information technology diploma, which primes students on the workings of information networks, or the computer systems technology diploma, which focuses more on programming—a path for those who may one day want to create cybersecurity software. Students who pursue the industrial network cybersecurity diploma will find themselves in the midst of a mock real-world cyberwar, where they split into lab groups that simulate factories trying to attack each other. Graduates of this diploma might head straight into jobs that protect critical infrastructure like hydro grids, water systems and nuclear systems.

Either way, after one of those two-year diplomas, students are eligible to move into BCIT’s bachelor of technology degree in digital forensics and cybersecurity. In this program, students delve deeper into the topic, learning such skills as how to put network security into place, investigate breaches and hunt down hackers, recover business assets after cyberattacks, and navigate digital information law.

On its campuses in southern Ontario, Sheridan College offers another option for those eager to get into cybersecurity. Its honours bachelor of information sciences (cyber security) program, which includes courses on network security, ethical hacking and database security, also includes an eight-month paid internship between the third and fourth year. Taking even a few courses in cybersecurity is great for anyone whose work might require at least some knowledge of the field—which is, frankly, pretty much every profession nowadays.



As Canada chases a net-zero future, the need for EV technicians is accelerating

Last December, the federal government announced that all cars sold in Canada must be fully electric by 2035. Since then, there’s been lots of discussion about the need for electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure—getting millions of charging stations in place along highways and across cities. There has been less talk, though, about where to take an EV when it’s not working, or who’s going to maintain all those stations once they’re up and running.

Clean Energy Canada, a climate program within Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., has declared that EV technology will be the fastest-growing clean energy industry over the next decade. That starts now, not in another 12 years, when the government’s mandate comes into effect. According to Clean Energy Canada’s estimate, jobs in the sector will increase 26-fold between 2020 and 2030, for a total of 184,000 positions.

Toronto’s George Brown College offers an electric vehicle technician program that’s one of the most comprehensive in the country. The program, which runs fully online and asynchronously, is great for someone coming into the field without any car or electricity expertise, but it’s also helpful for mechanics looking to transition from gas-powered cars. George Brown sets up students with 3D simulation software, as well as videos and animations, to learn everything from the basics of how electricity works right through to the functioning of autonomous vehicles.

For those who aren’t ready to jump fully into the field, one-off courses have also emerged. At Conestoga College in southwestern Ontario, the online Introduction to Electric Vehicles course is a primer that promises to explore “the pros and cons of EVs,” as well as dive into the comparative cost of owning an EV versus a car with an internal combustion engine.

Currently, the majority of postsecondary opportunities in the electric vehicle space require a student to possess a baseline level of automotive training. For instance, to apply for the exhaustive electric vehicle technology program at Cégep de Saint-Jérôme, northwest of Montreal, you’ll need to have a diplôme d’études professionnelles (DEP) in one of several related fields, hold an attestation of college studies (ACS/AEC) in mechanical or electrical engineering or industrial electronics, or bring five years’ work experience. Taking one of those steps in advance might be worth it, though, since Saint-Jérôme’s EV curriculum is solid, including electrical diagrams, inspection, batteries and recharging, mechanical elements and quality control. And you can trust that the job market in this line of work is only going to accelerate.



Making sense of a deluge of data can help health-care systems, business owners and climate scientists

Most of us are now aware that pretty much everything we click on—a social media post, a shopping link, an online quiz—is collected and recorded somewhere. But who receives all those billions of points of data? The answer is data analysts: computer scientists who can extract useful insights and information from those clicks for companies, organizations and governments.

According to the employment site Indeed, tech careers continue to dominate the job market in terms of demand and compensation. The rapid emergence of artificial intelligence programs—including OpenAI’s ChatGPT, which was launched in November 2022—has both lit a new spark in the field and introduced a wave of uncertainty.

As in other industries, some jobs will be replaced by the AI systems that computer scientists create. Getting artificial intelligence to do some of the grunt work, however, just means more brainy tasks for humans, including drawing higher-level insights from data and making strategic decisions, according to Reid Kerr, a data science professor at Seneca Polytechnic. “Figuring out what questions to ask is more difficult than answering them,” Kerr says. “AI won’t replace humans in that regard in the foreseeable future.”

When it comes to programs, Seneca’s honours bachelor of data science and analytics, the first of its kind in Ontario when it launched four years ago, is among the best. During the four-year program, students learn the fundamentals of the field—advanced math, data management, writing code and developing algorithms—but also gain tools to present data visually and apply data to running (or working for) a business. Most classes take place in a hands-on lab, and between the third and fourth year, students spend 420 hours at a co-op placement. Seneca won’t go into specifics for confidentiality reasons, but co-op employers include big banks, major retailers and media companies, large consulting firms, and all levels of government.

For those looking for a shorter option, Red River College Polytechnic in Winnipeg offers a two-year data science and machine learning program, where students gain advanced math and technology skills, learn how to use data to develop code, and implement cutting-edge machine learning algorithms. They also participate in co-op placements. Data-curious students may want to explore one-off introductory courses in data science and big data analytics. Some programs also offer a taste of Python programming, a ubiquitous coding language.

Wherever grads in data analysis complete their degrees, they can go on to work for tech giants like Google and Facebook, as well as for banks and other financial institutions. Health-care systems benefit from data analysts, and data science is crucial to science itself—climate modelling is a particularly urgent example. In fact, it’s hard to think of a discipline that won’t need a team of data scientists in the years to come.


A greying population means more money and more pathways to bring budding care workers into the field

It was a headline plucked from an end-of-days blockbuster, except in the summer of 2020 it was real life: government deploys military to long-term care homes to make up for lack of personal support workers. This special op played out across Ontario and Quebec, but reflected a national shortage that has only become worse in the three years since—partly due to COVID-era burnout rates, and partly the result of changing demographics. The number of Canadians over 85 is expected to triple in the next 23 years, which means the need for compassionate and competent care has never been greater.

For many reasons, the pandemic was challenging for PSWs—known as care aides in B.C. and orderlies in Quebec—but it was also a time to shine. PSWs work in long-term care facilities, hospitals, schools and private residences. “For so long, personal support workers have been the glue that holds communities and families together,” says Miranda Ferrier, CEO of the Canadian Support Workers Association. “During the pandemic, I think there was finally some recognition of this reality.” Ferrier, who earned her PSW degree from Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario, is among many advocates calling for sector-wide reform, starting with regulation and standardized training. “Hairdressers are regulated but PSWs are not,” she points out. National or even provincial standards could bring about an official code of conduct, wage parity and legal protection. In 2022, the federal government announced that it would increase the minimum wage for PSWs to $25 per hour, although actual rates are set, and vary, by the provinces.

The Ontario government offers tuition-free, accelerated programs that have become a popular recruitment tool at colleges like Mohawk, Conestoga and Collège Boréal. This follows a $115-million investment from the provincial government to train up to 8,200 workers. The Health Career Access program in B.C., funded by the province’s health ministry, takes it a step further, covering tuition while paying students $21 per hour for training. Also, starting in April of 2023, all of Ontario’s 24 colleges now offer a new program that provides an online, asynchronous path to PSWs who want to practise as a registered practical nurse. It’s a great incentive, Ferrier says, although she notes that PSWs shouldn’t feel a need to move out of the field—it’s a calling in its own right.

“One of the really exciting things that we’re seeing is greater opportunity to specialize,” Ferrier adds, noting the perinatal support worker program at Mohawk and the autism program at Humber. Niagara College offers an additional certificate (part of the one-year PSW program) on caring for individuals with dementia and other cognitive diseases, while Conestoga College has developed an online course on dementia care in English, French, Mandarin and Tagalog. Says Ferrier, “There really is no limit to where this kind of training can take you.”


To meet the skyrocketing demand for childcare workers, colleges have launched fast-tracked, fully funded degrees

That change in air pressure you felt in the spring of 2021? That was a collective exhale from parents after the federal government announced plans to move forward with $10-a-day childcare. All 10 provinces and three territories have signed on to the national program, which promises 250,000 new spots by 2026. Increased affordability combined with a significant influx of new immigrants means there will be plenty of demand. All that’s missing is thousands of early childhood educators (ECEs).

The national ECE deficit was underscored by a recent report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives that showed almost half of eligible Canadian children live in childcare deserts. “It’s a problem that existed before COVID-19, but certainly the burnout associated with the pandemic has made things worse,” says Rachel Vickerson, policy and project manager at the advocacy group Child Care Now. The good news: provinces are promising to boost funding of early childhood education. “We are finally seeing some recognition of the value ECEs bring to the lives of not just children, but also families and communities,” says Vickerson, pointing at recently introduced incentives across the country.

In Ontario, fully subsidized tuition is available to qualifying early childhood education students at several colleges, thanks to the Canada-Ontario Early Childhood Workforce Agreement, and most provinces have rolled out similar financial support options. Fast-tracked degrees and hybrid learning programs at schools like Seneca Polytechnic and Conestoga College make it more convenient than ever to earn certification—which is handy, because the level of education and certification you attain affects how much you can earn as an ECE in every province and territory.

Irfan Ali Awan, a recent grad at Seneca in Toronto, worked in early childhood education in his native Hong Kong, but came to Canada to better understand the merits of play-based learning—the pedagogical approach that promotes childhood development through open-ended, child-guided activity. “Being able to participate in skills labs and placements has been such a valuable learning experience,” he says.

Northern College in Timmins, Ontario, recently launched a Children’s Play Lab to meet growing demand. Other innovative approaches include a new apprenticeship program (a collaboration between the city of Brantford and Conestoga College) that allows people currently working in child-care settings to complete their education part-time.

ECE certification offers grads the opportunity to work not only in early learning programs but as a kindergarten assistant in both the private and public school systems and family resource programs such as EarlyON centres. Many roles in administration, curriculum development and resource consultation are open to ECEs, who have the option to earn a bachelor’s degree in child development at four-year programs through colleges like George Brown. “With so much expansion, there will be a lot of opportunity not just in our classrooms but in our planning departments,” says Vickerson. “ECEs will hopefully have a place in restructuring our systems.”

This article appears in print in the Maclean’s 2024 Colleges Guidebook. Buy the guidebook online here, and subscribe to the Maclean’s monthly print magazine here.