Since well before the IT boom, the University of Waterloo has been jumping- off point for many of Canada’s best and brightest software designers, hackers and engineers. It’s no surprise, then, that Bill Gates made Waterloo his only Canadian stop on a tour of North America’s top computer science schools.

One talking point was the Dream- Spark program, which plies students around the world with free Microsoft software, including the Visual Studio programming suite for web and video game design, and Expression Studio, which provides tools for animation and photography. The download site comes with a large dose of lifestyle marketing, promising “access to the inside scoop about our products and life working inside Microsoft and information on cool things coming out. This is your community.”

Critics say DreamSpark is a last desperate attempt to win back a generation of programmers weaned on free, open-source software, but Gates is always well received at Waterloo. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently gave the university’s school outreach programs a $12.5-million boost.

“We want to do everything we can to equip a new generation of technology leaders with the knowledge and tools they need to harness the magic of software to improve lives, solve problems and catalyze economic growth,” said Gates.

In his speech, Gates highlighted the decreased interest in IT jobs after the high-tech boom fizzled out. “When we want to hire lots of software engineers there is a shortage in North America—a pretty significant shortage…It’s partly that the enrolment in the field is going down.” Gates commented that Waterloo is pushing the trend in the other direction: applications are up in fields like computer science.

John Gantz, chief researcher at the IT market research company IDC, emphasized the importance of IT jobs. “The emerging economies are forecast to drive over 25 per cent of the new IT jobs over the next four years. These jobs will be driven by an evolving, highly skilled labour force. Tech skills are key to employability.” According to a report by the Conference Board of Canada, 90,000 IT workers will be needed over the next five years to employ the wireless Internet business. Each unfilled position could cost the economy $120,000 a year.

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