"Tech school isn’t for dummies anymore. In fact it never really was."

Sound blunt? Maybe. But when faced with an idea that doesn’t fit with the facts, Jay Fisher doesn’t pull punches. Jay is Communications Director for the Alberta Society of Engineering Technologists (ASET), and he knows that "tech school" – the technician and technologist programs offered at community colleges and institutes of technology across Canada – offers excellent but incredibly misunderstood career options.

Jay is just one of six technology industry experts, employers and "tech school" professors who agreed to give us the hard facts necessary to sort out fact from fiction. While their comments reflect their diverse industries, occupations and geographical locations, our experts agreed on the essentials: Technician and technologist careers are for people who have an instinct for technology and who aren't afraid of taking on complex multimillion dollar systems, projects and challenges.

In the world of technology, those who help to design devices and equipment, who decide exactly what equipment to use on a particular project, who figure out how to use it and who supervise its installation and use are generally known as technologists.

The people who actually install, test, use and fix equipment, who become the hands on experts with a specific piece of technology are known as technicians.

Technicians and technologists are women and men from all walks of life, from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds. They work in many different industries and live in virtually every region of the country. What kind of people are they? "Creative and practical types, with a trademark ‘hands on’ intuition," says Al Burkin, Employment Services Officer with the Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and technologists (OACETT). "Their intuition allows them to understand how things really work. Their attitude is never let's just try it out and see how it works," he continues.

They are also the people who can make a critical difference in a company’s success. Celestica is a multinational manufacturer of computers and electronic devices with facilities all over the world. They design, test and build equipment for IBM and other major manufacturers. Caroline Hoover is Human Resources Manager at Celestica's Toronto facility, which produces computers under the IBM brand. Celestica's Toronto workforce tops 5000, but Caroline is continually hiring more and more technicians and technologists, whom she favours over high school graduates. "What makes us competitive is our skilled people," she explains. "They can manage and fix and improve things right on our factory floor. They get actively involved with their heads, not just their with their hands."

While technicians and technologists share certain skills and responsibilities, there are important differences between the two career paths:

  • The tasks they usually perform.
  • The training they complete.
  • The competencies they draw upon, and
  • The rewards they receive, such as salary.

"Technicians are more likely than technologists to literally do hands-on work," says Jay Fisher. "Technicians are also more likely to work longer hours, do shift work and more physically demanding work. The technologist is more likely to be at the office, doing the cleaner, more organizational end of the job.

"If you look at installation of electronic equipment, that's a technician's role," he continues. "If you would like to be involved in the design of that equipment or deciding what equipment to use, that's the role of a technologist. The roles are really different out there in industry. You have to think about what you really like to do."

Technician and technologist training also differs greatly. Becoming a technician takes between 1200 to 1600 hours of classroom time – the equivalent of one to two years of study. Technologists, on the other hand, must complete two to three years of study, or 2000 to 3000 hours of classroom time. Because technicians and technologists are usually trained in different programs, students must necessarily choose one over the other before they choose a program and begin their studies.

Understand the differences between these careers and programs, but also understand yourself, advises Tony Tanner, Dean of Technology at Toronto's Seneca College, Canada's largest community college. "Everyone should choose an education based on what they like, and the skills they already posses. At the core of it all, you have to get some sense of what your strengths are." He adds, "I know that for the average 19 year old, that's not easy."

Susan Toop is Co-op Coordinator at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario. She likes to use a sports' metaphor to illustrate the difference between technician and technologist career paths. "Think about whether you’ve been part of the basketball team, or the captain," she suggests. "The real difference between being a technician or a technologist is whether you want to join the team or lead the team. Do you see yourself as someone who leads or supervises a large group of people or who owns their own business?" she asks, "Or would you be more comfortable as a team player? Technologists study longer and they get the advanced skills. They have more insight into how the work in a business gets done, and they might end up supervising the technicians."

Harold McKinnon agrees. A technologist himself, and Manager of Industrial Relations for Meritor Automotive, a large auto parts manufacturer, Harold sees leadership skills and busines know how as the major points of difference between technicians and technologists , "The technician is the ‘techie’ type," he explains. "Whereas the technologist also has the business skills."

As to financial rewards, who outearns who? Given their more advanced skills and longer training, technologists generally earn more, but it's wrong to assume that's true in every case. Salaries vary by industry, region of the country and by job responsibility. Years of training are only one factor among many. The other features and profiles in Look Ahead, Get Ahead will "show you the money" using the most recent statistics available.

Given all these differences, many people are understandably confused when they hear the terms "technician" and "technologist" being used almost interchangeably by the media and by some employers. Technologists are often called technicians on their business cards, and the opposite also occasionally happens as well. In other cases, people with jobs in libraries, museums and other non-applied science areas are also called "technicians" though they are not really considered technicians for the purposes of this program.

"There's no copyright or trademark on those words," explains Jay Fisher of ASET, which means that until recently, virtually anybody in almost any profession could call themselves a technician or a technologist. That's starting to change, however. The Canadian Technology Human Resource Board (CTHRB) has established a standard national guideline for the use of the words "technician" and "technologist" and in several provinces the terms Certified Engineering Technician and Certified Engineering Technologist (CET) are regulated. Just as you can't call yourself a lawyer if you haven't been to law school or passed your bar exams, in these provinces you must have the appropriate education and be certified by a provincial association before you can call yourself a CET.

In simple terms, these rules have been created to help employers understand what they are getting and get what they want when comparing applicants with different training and experience. "The incredible variety of training around the world is a factor in this," Jay explains. "We have more people with all sorts of backgrounds using all sorts of different titles." Employers are looking to the standards to safeguard their hiring practices, which will certainly benefit new students and graduates.


Because the public perception of technology programs is changing, there is far more competition than there used to be for places in technical institute and community college technology programs across Canada. Students with the bare minimum high school prerequisites and marks are having a hard time getting in.

The experts' prescription

A near surefire way to get into the program of your choice is to keep your marks up, and take math (ideally, advanced math), science and, yes, even English courses. Above all, don't be fooled by the notion that tech school or college is an "easy" option for those who can’t get into university. Don't forget that you're not just competing with high school graduates for spots in Canada’s technology programs. "Less than half of our students come directly from high school," says Tony Tanner of Seneca College. "Our largest feeder school is York University, followed by the University of Toronto. And Seneca has roughly half of the foreign visa students in the entire province of Ontario."

The necessity of taking math and science in high school is also based on hard, real-life requirements. "The biggest complaint in our technical schools is that the students can’t handle the math," says ASET's Jay Fisher. "It's the main reason why some students don't finish their programs. The standards are getting higher, to get in and to get through, because there is more and more to learn."

As a recruiter of college technology graduates (and someone who receives roughly 300 job applications every day) Celestica's Carolyn Hoover strongly agrees. "People are shocked to discover that to work in my factory you need math, you need logic, you need to be able to learn constantly because processes and products are changing at such a fast rate," she explains. "You absolutely need math because most of the equipment is controlled by computers. If you didn't have those subjects ten years ago, you could work for this company. Now, without those skills, you won’t get a job."

It may be the English course part of this prescription that most surprises aspiring technicians and technologists. It shouldn't according to Jay Fisher. "The ability to communicate is incredibly important, especially for technologists," he says. "They have to sell ideas to boards of directors and make presentations at annual general meetings. High school students need to understand that there’s a lot more to technology careers than sitting in a back room taking computers apart."

If you aspire to the media cliché of the anti-social techno-geek who works in solitude and prefers his keyboard for company, you might want to reconsider your career goals. Communication, team, and interpersonal skills are the rule, say the experts. "Our jobs are not isolated or geeky," says Caroline Hoover of Celestica. "Our work is team based. The people who are really successful here are fast learners and team players who work really well with others."

"The successful people are the ones with the good communication skills -- things like reading and writing," adds Al Burkin, drawing on his extensive experience in technical recruitment and his current work with OACETT.

While getting a job after graduating as a technician or technologist is not a sure thing, it is the overwhelming trend. The market for technical graduates is now so hot and the placement statistics so high (well over 90 per cent) that community colleges and tech schools are feeling pressure. Those few technicians and technologists still unemployed six months after graduation usually have reasons other than lack of opportunities. It's employers who are complaining about a scarce supply of qualified workers. "We don't graduate enough people to fill the opportunities because of attrition," says Fanshawe College's Susan Toop. "And the co-op employers grab up the good ones. The employers coming into the hiring process later often can't get the people they want." Co-op programs are an extremely popular option which permit students to terms of paid work with classroom training.

Harold McKinnon of Meritor Automotive is one of those happy co-op employers, a technologist now working as an Industrial Relations Manager, and a Conestoga College graduate as well. "I like the co-op program. It's a recruiting tool for me. We get kids with so much enthusiasm and raw talent and let them loose to show us what they can do. And the skills these kids come out with, we benefit immensely from them being here."


Facing a white hot job market and the prospect of a worldwide shortage of qualified technical workers, many tech grads don’t worry about their futures. But long term planning is a vitally important tool, especially for those whose goals may include advancing into management, going into business for themselves or working in foreign countries.

Al Burkin has followed the career paths of technologists with considerable interest and maintains that "not a lot of people understand what (technicians and technologists) actually do, but you do see many technologists earning six figure incomes and running corporations." Jay Fisher agrees, and adds, "Lots of tech grads are business owners now. They have extremely attractive careers and lifestyles. We've seen lots of cases where a kid goes to school for two years, and gets hired literally the day after graduation, makes good money right away and lives the good life."

Harold McKinnon of Meritor is himself is an example of how far and wide a technical grad can go after graduation. His current role is Manager of Industrial Relations for Meritor, a management-level position. And he insists he is not alone, citing name after name of fellow technology grads working as presidents and vice-presidents of other firms in his industry, often in sales. While one of Harold’s passions is to convince technologists to consider sales and marketing jobs, he also admits that "Once people get to the technologist level, the career options are limitless."

What about the opportunities for technologists as compared to university-educated engineers?

The image of the technologist as the engineer’s helper or assistant, while sometimes accurate, doesn’t tell the whole story. "There are quite a few technologists doing the same work as university graduated engineers," says Al Burkin. "In companies that don’t require a professional licensed engineer, technologists can go further and do more".

And in Jay Fisher’s opinion, it’s also a matter of time. "Technologists are now well enough respected that they are getting into senior positions and engineers are working for them." Harold McKinnon agrees. "The technologist's leadership role has always existed. It just hasn’t had a lot of profile or public awareness. There are equal opportunities for engineers and technologists in the auto-parts manufacturing industry."

It's the training, rather than the opportunities, that may remain the biggest difference between engineers, technicians and technologists. If Canada follows Europe's lead, a "bridging" system may one day allow technologists to upgrade to engineer status more easily. Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario and the University of Regina currently offer special programs geared towards technologist grads, often in collaboration with local community colleges. Several other Canadian universities are now starting to follow suit.

A technology program is no less difficult than an engineering degree, says Tony Tanner, who came to Seneca College after 17 years in the pipeline business as a mechanical engineer. "It’s far less theoretical than a university program, and you get to apply what you learn. There is far more lab experience as part of the learning process than there is in a university setting. And you get to use pretty current equipment. Frankly, when university folks come to visit, they are blown away by our technology and what we’re doing with our students."


The key to choosing programs and choosing careers is to literally do your homework. Get the grades you need for admission (and expect those minimum standards to keep rising) and research your options. "Visit the colleges which interest you and look at their graduate placement rates. You’ll find some surprises," advises Caroline Hoover. Being practical about your choices makes both dollars and sense. "You have to balance the income your diploma will provide you against whether you think you will enjoy that path."

"Remember that where you end up is very much up to you," says Harold McKinnon "You can’t just choose a program and expect to have a career path laid out for you. Don’t expect anyone else to look after your career." But alongside his warning is the optimism all the experts share. "Get a good foundation and then continue your education -- and a technical education is a wonderful foundation. Pursuing these careers is where the future is and where Canada will continue to grow." Or, as Susan Toop simply says, "Careers in tech is where it's at."