Op-ed: When it comes to tech talent, it can be hard to know where Ottawa stands

tech employee
Editor's Note

This article appears in the 2023 Welch LLP Business Growth Survey. To download the full report, visit https://www.ottawabusinesssurveyreport.ca/ 

While Ottawa’s tech sector has experienced its share of peaks and valleys, the recurring theme remains the perpetual need for top talent. Calls for attracting the “best and brightest” to the sector persist during both good and bad times. But surely there must be more nuance to such calls for action, when every tech region worth its salt would adopt similar strategies. 

For every brain drain, there has to be a brain gain somewhere. A critical issue for the future of Ottawa’s tech talent strategy must then be an assessment of where we stand in relation to other leading tech hubs.

An oft-quoted statistic that ostensibly puts Ottawa’s tech sector in a very favourable light is the metric of concentration in tech employment. Sometimes referred to as “tech density” — the number of tech employees as a percentage of total urban employment — Ottawa comes in at 11.6 per cent, according to CBRE’s 2022 North American Scoring Tech Talent report, placing our city ahead of all North American urban regions surveyed, including San Francisco. 

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At first glance, this data point leaves the impression that all is well in the local tech sector. But is it? An important but overlooked aspect of this data is that CBRE counts tech employment by occupation, irrespective of whether that talent works for the tech industry or in non-tech sectors, including government. Based on CBRE’s 2022 numbers, Ottawa’s total tech employment looks impressive indeed: 81,200. 

Yet, as a few keen observers of Ottawa’s tech sector have pointed out, the CBRE numbers diverge significantly from the tech employment data collected by Statistics Canada. According to StatCan, Ottawa’s tech industry averaged roughly 46,000 employees between 2016 and 2020. This discrepancy suggests a very different interpretation of the robustness of Ottawa’s tech sector.

Notwithstanding the inconsistencies of measuring tech density, another significant metric worth considering is how Ottawa is faring on the net growth of tech jobs relative to other Canadian cities considered as tech hubs. Through this data lens, another picture emerges.

Even when adopting CBRE’s expansive definition of tech employment, tech talent workforce gains are noticeably more significant in other Canadian urban regions when compared to Ottawa. In terms of net tech job growth, cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver scored impressive five-year growth rates (36.5 per cent, 19.3 per cent and 47.9 per cent, respectively) as compared to a 1.5 per cent rate for Ottawa.

An even more telling statistic would be whether Ottawa has been experiencing a brain drain or brain gain relative to other regions. Unfortunately, this type of data is extremely difficult to come by. A potential indicator of brain drain or gain would be a survey of recent STEM grads coming out of our post-secondary institutions. If this data is collected, it has not been made publicly available. If new graduates with highly desirable specialized skills are, in fact, leaving Ottawa for greener tech pastures elsewhere, it would be yet another indicator of the state of the city’s tech sector.

Perhaps the most insightful thinking on what it takes for regions to develop effective talent strategies comes from the annual Global Talent Competitiveness Index published by INSEAD. It is surprising that this report receives little, if any, coverage in Ottawa given that our city fares quite well in the global standings, ranking in the top quartile and one of 17 cities from North America. The authors of the report contend that a region’s talent strategy is multi-dimensional and about much more than “attracting the best and the brightest.” 

In these turbulent times, it would be well worth the effort by Ottawa’s economic development organizations to adopt the relevant benchmarks to better position our region as a top talent contender.

Luc Lalande is the innovator-in-residence at the Rideau-Rockcliffe Community Resource Centre.

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