by Tim Hornyak
With help from the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science, Montreal is set to start turning out more graduates to staff the information age.
The Faculty is working in conjunction with a consortium of Quebec technology companies to create a telecommunications option in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE). Four new undergraduate telecommunications courses to begin this fall were approved last month by the Academic Programs Committee and presented to Senate last week.
The move is the latest in a growing collaboration between ECE and the consortium of 16 companies that includes Bell Canada, Teleglobe, Vidéotron, Newbridge Networks and Ericsson. In co-operation with the Quebec government, Montreal's École Polytechnique, the École de Technologie Supérieure, the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique and Concordia, the consortium recently announced plans for a $12-million International Institute of Telecommunications to be built in Montreal. The Institute will address the growing need for skilled graduates in the telecommunications industry, and will provide specialized training for those already working in the field.
ECE's new telecommunications courses are an interim step before the new telecommunications undergraduate option is introduced to the program, said Professor Charles Giguère, Chair of ECE. The plan is part of an increasingly important trend toward collaboration in high-tech education between public-sector schools and private-sector corporations.
"There's a new paradigm for partnerships between universities and industry," Giguère said. "The goals are to meet the needs of the telecommunications industry for, first, an increased number of graduates in telecommunications, and, second, better qualified graduates."
Those needs reflect the worldwide explosion in the past decade of information technology (IT), a meta-industry that encompasses telecommunications, computers and the Internet. Giguère cites industry studies indicating that while recent demand for IT workers has increased exponentially, the projected number of graduates is expected to remain the same, or increase only slightly. Meanwhile, every person in the developed world is estimated to now use an average of 10 computers in the course of his or her daily activities.
"Computers are in washing machines already," Giguère said, "and they're thinking of putting them in refrigerators. So they're going to be everywhere."
ECE students will benefit from the agreement in several ways. For one, the consortium will build a multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art laboratory where they can get hands-on telecommunications training to supplement ECE lectures. The department is also planning summer internships with consortium companies, which will provide students with a "guaranteed job" when they finish their studies.
"Companies are using the term 'pre-hire,'" Giguère said. "Instead of hiring the student when they finish, they are hiring the student a year before the student finishes."
In addition, for every student that the consortium companies hire, they will donate about $10,000 to the Institute. In the future, part of that amount will go to member schools such as Concordia to offer and develop telecommunications programs. That should alleviate some ECE budget pressures caused by government cutbacks, which the department has tried to address by increasing enrolment by up to 25 per cent in some programs. Giguère now expects a "substantial amount" of new money from the consortium agreement that may eventually fund an additional 10 to 15 new staff for both ECE and Computer Science.
"We're in a constant state of evolution as far as our programs go," Giguère said. "And it's rapid evolution, not just tinkering."