Feature: Ottawa’s talent shortage: myth, reality and mismatch

LucLalande
Luc Lalande

Last year, the Information and Communications Technology Council made big predictions about the demand for Canadian tech talent in coming years. It forecasted the demand for 182,000 additional ICT jobs by 2019, 9,900 of which would need to be filled in Ottawa, and followed that up projecting that the level of homegrown talent would be insufficient to fill this demand.

Flash forward to this past spring, and Ottawa employers seemed to be in agreement. For the second year in a row, OBJ’s Business Growth Survey reported that attracting skilled talent is the No. 1 concern for local business leaders, with 47 per cent citing “skilled workforce” as a top concern.

Reading all of this, you might feel warranted to panic and declare a full-blown “talent shortage” in Ottawa tech.

As usual, the truth is more complicated than any sweeping declaration that our tech ecosystem is faltering. Ottawa’s tech industry is in fact growing, quite rapidly, and many in the city are taking steps to try to ensure that the talent pool keeps pace.

Help Wanted

There are opportunities in Ottawa’s tech market, but they come with their own challenges.

Klipfolio founder Allan Wille was sitting down to a dinner this past spring with a few local CEOs. During the dinner conversation, he heard that the same frustrations he saw at his own company were being felt throughout the city.

“Somebody asked the question, ‘Who’s hiring right now?’ And I think every single one of the CEOs put their hand up,” he says.

Today, Wille says he’s feeling the talent squeeze even more acutely. Whereas then he was only having trouble getting a hold of experienced talent in the city, he’s now also having difficulty getting recently graduated students from the pipeline.

Students who have been through university co-op programs are often the focus of competition among employers, he says, while lower-tier talent sits on the sidelines.

“The cream of the crop is being hired aggressively. We’re not going to bring in people who aren’t a good fit, even in a difficult hiring market,” he says.

Troy English, chief technical officer at Ross Video, says that while he can usually find local talent to fill roles in the company, he thinks Ottawa employers poaching existing talent from one another is unproductive.

“The biggest issue in Ottawa is getting new people who are very strong,” English says.

Wille agrees: Ottawa needs external talent to thrive, and lobbying the government to implement a fast-track visa program has been a priority for his company.

Relocating a worker to Ottawa, a six- to nine-month process rife with uncertainty, is “an anxiety-induced system,” Wille says. The company recently had an employee leave Klipfolio because of inefficiencies in the current system.

The federal government appears to be listening. It announced it would be making changes to rules around skilled foreign workers coming to Canada.

Specifically, the changes - which came into effect Nov. 19 - will make it easier for foreigners who studied in Canada, as well as those already here on temporary work permits and those individuals with offers of short-term contracts, to live and work in Canada.

Invest Ottawa is gearing up to embark on an external marketing campaign in the new year to attract foreign talent to the city, recognizing the need to bolster the talent pool.

“There’s only so much you can do in Canada,” says Invest Ottawa’s Laina Pilon, noting that the need for tech talent expands beyond the city.

“We talk about the opportunities in the Ottawa ecosystem for tech talent to come and set up, and that’s not something we’ve usually done in the past. That’s kind of a new area for us,” she says.

The current hiring climate has also forced Klipfolio to adapt: Wille says that the company is putting money in its budget next year specifically for recruitment.

A Talent ‘Mismatch’

Not everyone is on board with the idea of a talent deficit, though.

“I’ve been hearing this story of talent shortage in Ottawa for the better part of 20 years,” says Luc Lalande, executive director of the Entrepreneurship Hub at the University of Ottawa. “I really have a hard time getting my head around that.”

Lalande sees a steady stream of grads in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics leaving the university only to come up empty-handed in the job market or find work in another field.

Commercial real estate firm CBRE released a report this month taking a look at the top tech cities in the country and noticed similar phenomena. While Ottawa has the most educated workforce in the country, with 43.4 per cent of workers holding bachelor’s degrees or higher, Ottawa also led the way in so-called “brain drain.”

Comparing figures of who graduated with a degree in the city from 2010-2014 with the number of jobs added in the city from 2011-2015, CBRE found a drain of 37,458 people. (Figures don’t refer solely to STEM-based degrees, but those degrees are included.)

Lalande has a few explanations for why Ottawa breeds such an educated workforce but fails to convert talent into jobs.

“STEM degrees don’t necessarily translate into STEM skills,” he says.

He says that post-secondary institutions need to consider whether the educations they offer are aligned with the needs of employers. Borrowing a line from blogger Irving Wladawsky-Berger, he sees Ottawa’s problem more as a talent “mismatch” than a shortage. Our homegrown talent is perhaps more in need of work-aligned training than traditional curricula offer.

“I think we have to look under the hood of these degrees,” says Lalande.

On the other hand, the CBRE report had a number of positive things to say about Ottawa’s tech market. It said the rate of growth in Ottawa’s millennial population is second in the country, real estate costs are relatively affordable and the city boasts more than 10 per cent of the total number of tech jobs in the country.

“We’re not competing on the scale of Toronto and Vancouver, just because of their size, but on a per capita basis, we’re punching above our weight,” says Shawn Hamilton, managing director of CBRE Ottawa.

Hamilton adds that the continued presence of companies such as Ericsson and Ciena – which, after buying up divisions of Nortel, could have relocated years ago for cheaper real estate – is a reflection of the value of Ottawa’s talent pool.

Team effort

Employers, students, universities, local organizations: There are things each party can do to improve the tech talent field for themselves.

Students will need to incorporate skills-based learning into their education, whether it’s through their degree, a co-op program, extra-curricular activities or supplementary classes. If students can get into a company to do real-world work, English says that’s an immediate boost to a resume.

“We use the co-op program in large part to really interview prospective candidates. I think the co-op program is probably the No. 1 thing you can do,” he says.

Lalande adds that rapid skills obsolescence is a rising threat to all members of the workforce: Odds are, given the rate of technological development, the skills you graduate with today aren’t the ones you’ll need five years from now. Constant learning, then, is the key to remaining employable.

Companies can also take initiative to find and attract top students to their teams, getting them in their pipeline of candidates sooner.

“What all employers need to do is really focus on their employer brand,” says Wille.

Invest Ottawa and Shopify are sponsoring the Startup Open House later this month in an attempt to introduce students to prospective companies such as Klipfolio, Martello Technologies, The Better Software Company and You.i TV.

“Most of the companies that are opening their doors are hiring and they’re trying to get their brand out there,” says Pilon.

The problem of the talent shortage isn’t imagined, but neither is it a nuanced understanding of the situation the city faces. Ottawa has talent, but it needs more, and it needs to better prepare that talent for the current demands of the labour market.