Ottawa tech sector hits all-time employment high, says Invest Ottawa survey

The National Capital Region’s tech sector has set an all-time high for employees with 68,000 people now working at 1,700 companies, according to an Invest Ottawa survey released Tuesday.

“If you really want to capture the market, there’s no one way to do it,” Invest Ottawa CEO Bruce Lazenby said, adding that the information was gathered through online surveys, information from the agency’s business development managers and the organization’s Salesforce database.

The agency also borrowed information from the Kanata North BIA’s recent study, hired students to make cold calls and had talks with various CEOs from the region.

“We did that for months before we said, “You know what? We’re confident we have a 90 per cent accuracy number here,’” Mr. Lazenby said. “We have reached out to the vast majority of those 1,700 companies and we’re confident that we’re seeing a very low margin of error.”

Mr. Lazenby said it was extremely important to his organization to make sure the results had “real numbers, third-party attributable, collaborative, supported numbers,” unlike some cities he said claim to have two new companies start every day.

“How can you say that with a straight face? Anybody would know that is (not true),” he said.

The last time a survey this extensive was conducted on the region’s tech sector was in 2011 when Invest Ottawa’s forerunner, the Ottawa Centre for Regional Innovation, determined there were 1,450 companies employing 62,400 people.

Mr. Lazenby said the latest survey’s results show a much more diversified economy than back in the day when Nortel was king.

“We were telecommunications. That sector has come back a lot, but it’s supported now by the digital media guys, by the software guys, by the life sciences guys, by the cleantech guys. It’s a much broader base now of companies that are in terrific growth clusters,” he said, adding he believes the sector’s employment numbers will continue to rise year after year.

Of the 1,700 companies in what Mr. Lazenby is calling the “new economy,” 1,430 employ fewer than 50 people. While the Invest Ottawa news release said small businesses “will set the stage for future growth,” Mr. Lazenby also concedes these companies have the highest risk of failure.

“That is a problem we all acknowledge and we all want to focus on, but the reality is … there’s lots of companies that fail,” he said. “From my experience, very few entrepreneurs stop being entrepreneurs when the company fails. They get back in the saddle, they do it somewhere else, emboldened and more experienced by the failure they just had.”

Mr. Lazenby said Invest Ottawa is trying to identify the smaller startups with the greatest likelihood of success to give them the extra support they need to get to the next level.

The sector’s new employment numbers were revealed amid ongoing concerns about a lack of skilled tech talent in the city.

If local companies are at full employment and the talent shortage continues, they will have to poach talent from each other, something Mr. Lazenby said is not good for the local economy.

It’s already happening, he added.

“I’ve had executives from very well-known companies reach out to me and say, ‘Bruce, I know the guys I’m poaching from and I feel terrible,’” he said.

Mr. Lazenby said Invest Ottawa is working on a business plan he hopes will help alleviate the talent shortage, which he called more of an opportunity than a problem.

“You’re going to have an answer in a couple weeks,” he said.