Invest Ottawa putting Canada’s capital on the global talent map

The local economic development agency is joining Ottawa's scale-up companies in the hunt for hires
invest ottawa
Natalie MacArthur is the director of Invest Ottawa's talent strategy. Photo by Craig Lord

For Natalie MacArthur, moving back to Ottawa for a new job also happened to prepare her for the position itself.

MacArthur lived in the capital during many of her formative years, time that included doing a degree in marketing and communications at the University of Ottawa. Her journey then took her across Canada and overseas, where she worked in the United Kingdom, Amsterdam and, mostly recently, for Scotiabank in Toronto.

A year ago, when she moved back to the capital to become the director of Invest Ottawa’s talent strategy, she became an example of exactly what she’s trying to do: convince top-tier talent to move (back) to Ottawa. If she and her team are successful, the city’s tech sector could receive an influx of much-needed talent in an especially tight labour market.

For the past few months, the National Capital Region has floated just above record-low levels of unemployment. Heading into 2020, the unemployment rate in Ottawa-Gatineau sat at 4.4 per cent. In last year’s Ottawa Business Growth Survey, local executives reported that finding top talent was among the biggest concerns they face in building their businesses, just behind attracting new customers.

“Talent is always topic number one or two for any of these different organizations, whether it’s the current or the projected need,” says MacArthur.

That need is especially acute in Ottawa’s tech sector, which represents a relatively high concentration of the city’s total employment. Few organizations in Ottawa have a better view on this demand than the city’s recruitment and staffing firms. The recruitment agencies Techopia spoke to say the need to find skilled tech talent reached a boiling point in 2019.

“It is way more challenging today to identify that top tech talent versus two years ago.”

“It is way more challenging today to identify … that top tech talent versus two years ago,” says Ron Palaczka, CEO of LRO Staffing.

Despite the tight market, Palaczka says the level of demand in 2019 drove the company to its best year in business since launching in 2005. Of LRO’s nine distinct business segments, revenue from tech-focused placements led the company.

It’s a similar story at excelITR. Ameera Girgis, the company’s director of IT services, says 2019 was the company’s busiest year for permanent staffing needs, prompting excelITR to double its recruitment capacity for IT placements.

Teaching Ottawa tech firms to ‘fish’

MacArthur’s team at Invest Ottawa, the economic development agency tasked with supporting the growth of local businesses, hopes to alleviate the city’s talent crunch. Among the many initiatives Invest Ottawa runs, the latest push to help companies reach their potential is the Scale-Up Platform.

As part of a program that was first announced last year, the organization will receive $16.85 million over five years from FedDev Ontario to support high-potential firms that are on the path to $100 million in annual revenue. So far, 41 companies ranging from 20 employees to 600 have signed up to receive support from Invest Ottawa.

Much of that help falls under the HR banner, as finding and retaining talent becomes imperative when trying to hit scale. When a company joins the Scale-Up Platform, MacArthur says the first step is a “talent management audit” that gives Invest Ottawa a sense of where the companies need the most support.

Oftentimes, that’s on the recruitment side of things. Invest Ottawa can act as a funnel for these firms to attract talent that they couldn’t reach on their own.

As an example, Invest Ottawa participates in the Destination Canada program hosted by the Canadian embassies in Paris and Brussels. The program puts out a call to Canadian expats or anyone else interested in moving to the country.

This past year, some 4,000 people showed up to four-day job fair in Europe; roughly 1,000 of those prospects worked in the tech sector; Invest Ottawa’s team clocked 300 one-on-one conversations with interested applicants; and now 30 or so are engaged in a hiring process with local tech companies, MacArthur says.

Invest Ottawa’s approach to recruitment is designed to avoid competition with local staffing agencies, MacArthur says, by avoiding executive placements and focusing efforts on international talent.

Going back to the talent audit, she adds that the scale-up program’s effectiveness is not measured by the number of hires it yields. Rather, Invest Ottawa looks to help companies build their own HR and recruitment systems so that when they graduate from the program they’re equipped to build their own teams.

In other words, Invest Ottawa doesn’t plan to cast its net for talent each time a company needs a new hire.

“We’re teaching them how to fish,” MacArthur says.

Thinking outside the capital

Much of Invest Ottawa’s other work on the talent question revolves around making the capital itself more attractive to prospective talent. This means separating Ottawa from international markets such as San Francisco and closeby metropolises such as Toronto and Montreal.

Though Ottawa might still have a reputation as a government town, the local economic development agency believes a focus on the sectors where it could be a leader – health-tech and autonomous vehicle development, to name a couple – combined with the quality of life the city offers makes for an attractive package.

“I think there’s certainly a great story that we can tell in terms of the innovation from a business perspective, but also the great quality of life, the great cost of living and just how our city is continuing to grow as a result of all of these things,” MacArthur says.

Amid Ottawa’s tight talent market, the city’s recruitment firms are also looking outside the capital for their hires.

Palaczka notes that western provinces such as Alberta, where the turbulent oil and gas sector is leaving many searching for new opportunities, are prime targets to attract talent to Ottawa. He and MacArthur both highlight the importance of alumni networks from local colleges and universities as great resources for bringing graduates back to the city – turning a brain drain into a gain.

“I find that people that are familiar with Ottawa, it’s easier to attract them to come back,” Palaczka says.

But if Ottawa’s cold winters remain a limiting factor, Girgis argues that tech companies need not be constrained to geographical city limits. She says her team has found success encouraging clients to pursue remote working as an option, turning Ottawa’s modest talent pool into an ocean of global opportunities.

“Maybe the resource doesn’t have to move from a different city,” she says. “It’s thinking outside the box.”