A few months ago, I spoke with more than a dozen senior executives from high-tech companies in Kanata about one of the biggest issues any technology firm in Ottawa faces: attracting and retaining talent. The companies included large telecom multinationals and some of our rising local stars.
Kanata North is the largest technology park in Canada and is home to more than 500 companies that employ in excess of 20,000 people. For over a decade, former employees of Nortel and other firms provided the talent that fuelled the growth of both domestic and multinational companies in Kanata. Those workers are now starting to retire, and the next generation of tech talent is in high demand.
I remember talking a few years ago to a company that said one of its biggest challenges was responding to the needs of a workforce that averaged more than 45 years of age. Many companies realize that a greying talent pool is limiting their adoption of new ideas, slowing their level of innovation and causing their culture to stagnate. The firms I spoke with understand they need to change the status quo and start hiring younger employees if they are going to grow.
In real estate, they call a process of neighbourhood renewal “gentrification.” This concept could also be applied to the high-tech sector in Kanata. The old guard is still there, but it’s actively looking to a new generation to ensure future success and sustainability.
Ten years ago, upstart companies such as Shopify, Klipfolio and Fluidware began to thrive in downtown office locations, largely because young employees wanted to live and work in an urban environment where they could enjoy a variety of conveniences without needing a car to get to them.
That eastward shift in the city’s tech ecosystem has created a major challenge for firms attempting to lure young professionals to Kanata. Ottawa’s public transit system is designed to move people from the suburbs to downtown in the morning and back again in the afternoon. Companies in Kanata need the opposite. If you don’t drive, you won’t like working in Kanata. For the longest time, that meant Kanata wasn’t cool in the minds of many younger workers.
However, as the millennial generation is settling down and having children, some workers are now starting to move out of downtown condos into suburban homes because they need additional space for their families. That could work to Kanata’s advantage.
As demand for software developers grows, Kanata firms are competing more and more often with their downtown counterparts for new talent. However, hiring younger tech talent is a complex challenge for many Kanata companies, and not just because many recent grads still prefer the “live, work, play” lifestyle associated with downtown firms.
One of the biggest hurdles many Kanata HR managers face is overcoming inertia when hiring new employees. It is only natural for recruiters to want to hire employees who closely resemble themselves and their teams. But I believe it’s essential for HR managers to encourage more diversity in terms of gender, age and ethnicity. Managed properly, a new hiring approach can revitalize a company’s culture, triggering innovation and new ways of thinking.
Interested in thoughts from the Kanata North Business Association, Shopify and Hire Immigrants Ottawa on how to best attract new, young talent? Check out Techopia Live's recent panel discussion on fostering a brain gain in Ottawa:
A large telecom company in Kanata told me that for the past decade, it had been able to attract the talent it needed from the pool of veteran engineers who used to work at Nortel and other telecom leaders of the past. However, the company acknowledged that continuing innovation in the telecom sector has forced it to start hiring younger engineers and computer programmers to maintain its competitiveness.
As an example, one of the new hot programming languages is Rust, which is an evolution of C++. This language was invented less than 10 years ago and is an open-source project. Most universities don’t even teach it yet. Up until a few months ago, I had never even heard of it. It was only when my son was applying for co-op jobs that he was asked if he knew Rust. He taught himself the language, and that skill helped him land his latest co-op placement.
The transformation of the tech workforce is a gradual process. The mass hiring practices of 20 years ago are disappearing, and companies are now growing and recruiting in a much more manageable fashion. Today’s leading tech enterprises are still looking for experienced talent, but they are also recognizing the need to mix in younger employees with renewed energy and cutting-edge skills.
In some fields, Kanata firms have a clear advantage over companies in the downtown core.
If you want to work on autonomous vehicles, multimedia video systems or telecommunication systems, for example, you’re probably best advised to head west. A Kanata company that specializes in autonomous vehicle systems told me that for many years it had a challenge attracting new talent. But as it has grown more successful, it’s become a much more attractive landing spot for younger workers.
The biggest surprise for me in talking with the Kanata companies was this: Many told me that almost all of the new graduates they hire had been co-op students at their firms for at least one term. Companies use co-op placements as a “try-before-you-buy” method of assessing the skills, work habits and cultural fit of potential employees. Co-op also provides young workers with an extra year of experiential learning, a sort of tech apprenticeship program that benefits both students and their employers.
However, transportation to Kanata is still a major hurdle for firms looking to hire co-op students, many of whom live downtown and don’t own cars. Hopefully, the city will one day expand LRT all the way to the far west end to provide a viable transportation solution for these workers.
Recent studies name Ottawa as the second-largest technology cluster in Canada after Toronto, and Kanata remains a key driver of that growth. But if west-end companies want to maintain their leadership position, recruiting, retaining and retraining top talent will be the most critical factors in ensuring their success.
Jeffrey Dale is the president of Snowy Cloud and the former president of the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation.