Opinion: Ottawa’s got talent – but it needs the right skills

Talent is the raw material for the new industrial age. It is also global and very mobile.

By Jeffrey Dale

Neither Ottawa nor Canada has a monopoly on talent, and talent is very easy to move around. Successful economies in today’s world need to have access to the right talent at the right time.

Remember back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when companies such as JDS and Nortel were hiring by the hundreds? Those employers needed an abundance of workers who were knowledgeable about hardware. Our schools moved to graduate new students with this talent, but by the time they graduated the need for hardware specialists had declined. Suddenly, we had more people than jobs, and employees needed to figure out what new skills were in demand and, hopefully, retrain themselves in time.

Today, we are seeing another cycle of high demand for talent. Companies such as Shopify and others are worried about a shortage of skilled workers to support their growth and are expanding into new cities in search of that talent. At the same time, global companies such as Amazon and Apple have set up operations in Ottawa, further heightening competition for workers.

This cycle of talent needs and talent supply is never going to be in balance. The pace of innovation constantly changes the skill sets demanded by businesses. The education system cannot react fast enough to these changes, and government policy is even slower to shift gears than our post-secondary institutions.

To have a successful talent-based economy, we need to focus on three priorities:

- Educational institutions must provide both technical and business skills in all programs;

- Businesses need to constantly invest in training and upgrading workers’ skills;

- Governments must invest in education and make Canada the easiest place in the world for foreign talent to work.

First, our educational institutions need to adjust faster to changing talent requirements. Business and entrepreneurial skills need to receive the same priority as the STEM skills of science, technology, engineering and math. All degree and diploma programs should require at least one mandatory business or entrepreneurship course and offer at least one term of paid work placement.

Second, Canadian businesses must invest more in training their employees. The technology industry in particular has a reputation for providing little or no training to its workers. If a new skill is needed, many companies would rather hire new workers with the requisite skills than invest in retraining their current workforce, leading to layoffs when existing workers no longer had the right skill sets.

Many of our promising startups thrive when they first launch, but fail when they try and scale up their businesses. These failures are often the result of management teams not possessing the skills to scale from a small company to one with more complex requirements for success.  

The Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo has launched a new program focused on providing executives with the skills to scale a company from a startup to a globally competitive enterprise, and Ottawa’s Better Software Company was one of 10 startups from across Canada selected for the inaugural cohort.

The program was developed under the leadership of Micheál Kelly, the dean at Lazaridis and a former dean of the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management. It has great potential to help Canada’s growing companies meet the challenge of growing their management skill sets at the same trajectory as their revenues.

My company recently conducted a national research study for Industry, Science and Economic Development Canada on the challenges of recruiting, retraining and retaining senior talent in the tech sector. One of its key findings was that the skills in shortest supply are sales and marketing, an area Canadian firms desperately need to improve upon in order to build scalable enterprises.

Helping our management teams beef up these skills is a key step toward helping Canadian companies scale to become globally competitive. So is adding more placements for students to help them be job-ready when they enter the workforce.

Our post-secondary institutions should offer all students the opportunity to do at least one co-op placement. But this is only viable if more local businesses commit to hiring students for such placements.

Co-op graduates find jobs in their field faster than non-co-op students; I have met many employers who prefer to hire co-op graduates because they have that initial workplace experience and can be productive from the get-go.

However, many employers who hire co-op grads don’t hire co-op students. They are using the system without investing in it. The Ottawa business community and educational institutions need to make Ottawa the leading city in Canada for co-op programs.

Finally, government can help address the skills gap in several ways.

First, as the largest employer in Ottawa, it can be the model for student work placements.

Second, it needs to be more flexible to the occasional need for companies to hire foreign workers.

Despite their best intentions to hire Canadian workers, sometimes businesses must look outside our borders for the right talent to help them grow. Yet they are hamstrung by a complicated process that makes it frustrating and time-consuming for foreigners to obtain work visas.  

Recently, the minister of finance announced the federal government will begin to fast-track work visas for technology talent. This is a move in the right direction, but I don’t know why it is aimed only at the tech sector.

Right now, the United States has a better reputation than Canada for being friendly to highly sought-after foreign talent. This might change under the new U.S. administration, and it could be a golden opportunity for this country to once again become a welcome destination for the world’s best and brightest workers in all fields.

Ottawa does have talent. We have a highly skilled, diverse workforce. Our city’s economy and population have grown through education, reskilling and immigration.

But in order for our economy to continue to prosper, our businesses, their employees and our governments must do better at adjusting to ever-changing skill requirements.

The ability to adjust to these changes is a skill in its own right – one that might turn out to be the most valuable of all for our businesses and employees in the future.

Jeffrey Dale is the president of Snowy Cloud and the former president of the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation.