Prospectus: ‘People infrastructure’ could undermine Ottawa’s growth potential

Editor's Note

In each issue of the OBJ newsmagazine, publisher Michael Curran shares his prospectus for the Ottawa business community. Read the October edition of the newsmagazine here.

Riding light rail as it descends below downtown, gliding between underground stations, you get the palpable feeling that Ottawa has forever changed.

What is that saying? We’re now a little big city? A big little city?

Either way, the full potential of LRT lies somewhere past this initial phase. What comes next won’t simply skip congestion on Slater Street, it will unlock commercial development heading east to Orleans, connect the airport to the city centre and push tantalizingly close to Kanata’s high-tech park.

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Yes, it’s early days, but you can already sense this train is gathering steam.

If you buy into its potential (I certainly do), try to look down the track, maybe five to 10 years. Office and residential towers are rising. The city’s urban core is intensifying and projects such as LeBreton Flats are finally taking shape.

Is Ottawa ready for this type of growth?

In successive Ottawa Business Growth Surveys undertaken by OBJ and the Board of Trade, there is one clear recurring issue that’s top of mind for local business leaders. (It ranks behind only winning new customers.) The issue is a possibly worsening “talent shortage.”

The last week of September, about 150 people with a vested interest in employment gathered for the inaugural Talent Summit. It was a mix of private-sector execs, HR experts and institutional leaders from post-secondary and employment-related organizations.

The magnitude of the problem started to become clear. Tech, construction, manufacturing, hospitality and even professional services are clamouring to hire skilled workers.

So if physical infrastructure such as LRT will accelerate growth in a city with an unemployment rate of 4.7 per cent, can the people infrastructure keep pace?

(Remember, it wasn’t that long ago when a mere $2 billion in venture capital had tech recruiters waving “we’re hiring” placards on the side of highways. When companies couldn’t hire, they simply expanded elsewhere.)

After more than 25 experts had their say at the Talent Summit, I was left with three urgent takeaways.

First, we need much stronger ties between fast-growing companies and universities and colleges, especially when it comes to co-op.

Second, more needs to be done to integrate immigrants, recognize their foreign job credentials and get them meaningful employment. The same can be said about other historically underemployed segments, such as people with disabilities. 

Third is the bold idea of poaching workers from other Canadian cities. (Toronto comes to mind.) At a time when all the experts are preaching employment brand marketing, Ottawa needs to get on board. If Ottawa is changing for the better, the city needs to tell that story in a much more aggressive way.

On the face of it, Ottawa has what it needs to solve the talent shortage ​– great post-secondary institutions, steady immigration and a top-notch quality of life ​– but we’re only starting to understand how to put these elements together to make real progress on an issue that can undermine the city’s growth potential.

Read OBJ’s October newsmagazine

In this month’s edition, we profile our 2019 CEO of the Year recipient, Telesat chief executive Dan Goldberg. Print editor David Sali sat down with Goldberg, one of the region’s most respected executives, to find out how he hopes to propel the Ottawa-based satellite services firm to the top of its industry with a bold plan to build nearly 300 new satellites over the next five years.

In this month’s tourism feature, reporter Craig Lord puts a spotlight on the folks behind Escape Manor, who have been providing memorable escape room experiences for the past five years. And in our Women in Business special section, new Paradigm Properties owner and CEO Ashley Hopkins offers her thoughts on how to revitalize the ByWard Market.

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