Tech firm faces tough assignment to find talent

A California-based network security firm with a significant local presence says it might have to scale back growth projections for its Ottawa operations because it can’t find enough qualified workers in the city.

Fortinet, which employs nearly 200 people in the capital, uses Ottawa as the engineering and development base for two of its major product lines, Fortimail and Fortivoice. Last December, the firm announced a partnership with Willis College, a private institution in downtown Ottawa that plans to launch a new advanced network security program developed in conjunction with the company and tailored to its specific requirements.

Under the partnership, Fortinet will invest nearly $1 million to build new labs and classrooms at the school. In return, Willis is expected to turn out enough graduates from the 48-week program to fill up to 250 jobs over the next several years.

But now, Willis says it can’t even meet the firm’s requirements for talent from its current network security professional program, leading Fortinet to wonder about its future in the city if projections for the advanced program don’t pan out.

“It’s unlikely that we will actually leave Ottawa,” says Michael Anderson, Fortinet’s vice-president of global sales and support. “We’ve made a significant investment in the Ottawa location, so I can’t imagine actually pulling out. But if, for whatever reason, we can’t accommodate our growth in Ottawa, then we’ll look to other locations.”

Willis, which also has campuses in Arnprior and Smiths Falls, has had a partnership with Fortinet for the past four years. The company has since hired more than 50 graduates of the school, says Rima Aristocrat, the college’s president and CEO.

But when Fortinet recently called with an urgent request for eight more grads, she says she had no additional talent ready for the workforce.

“I had no more students,” she says. “Meanwhile, I have empty seats here. Something’s getting lost.”

Ms. Aristocrat says the college can accommodate up to 400 students and currently has about 50 in its network security program, which has a tuition tab of $10,000. Fortinet likes to hire Willis grads because they can be trained more quickly than students in traditional college or university programs, she says, but that doesn’t matter much if its instructors are standing in front of half-filled classrooms.

“Where we are, the market is growing very, very quickly,” says Mr. Anderson, noting Fortinet is expanding its employee count at a rate of more than 25 per cent a year. “The pipeline of people getting trained into this marketplace is not keeping up. That is a great problem to have, but it’s no less a problem. We need to be able to grow our staff to meet those demands.”

The lack of graduates is not a reflection on Willis, he says, noting the company has the same problem filling network security jobs at its Vancouver office.

“I’m not sure what it is,” he says.

Jeffrey Dale, the former president of the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation, says private colleges such as Willis have to work harder at marketing themselves in the very competitive post-secondary education landscape.

“The reach of colleges like Willis, the private colleges, is not as broad as the publicly funded colleges,” he says. “They have a much harder time getting out to all of the high schools, being part of those education days that all the high schools do.”

Ms. Aristocrat says she doesn’t have the money for extensive advertising campaigns, adding many people in the business community “are very shy about promoting Willis College because it’s a private college.”

“Of course I want the business,” she says. “But we have U.S. companies expanding in Ottawa, creating incredible jobs. That should be embraced.”

Fortinet and Willis are seeking ways to address the problem, Mr. Anderson says, and he is “confident” they will find a solution. Ottawa is now the company’s main North American support centre, and the attrition rate at the firm’s local operation is very low, he adds.

“That’s a huge benefit to the company,” he says.