Techopia-EY Insights op-ed: Intelligent tech talent strategies start from within

Editor's Note
This is one of the articles in our new publication, Techopia-EY Insights. Check it out here.

Today’s tech talent needs are gone as quickly as tomorrow. That’s especially true now, as the global sector reels from three years of ongoing hard hits that aren’t about to subside any time soon. Even so, Ottawa’s tech sector is growing, scaling and well-positioned to continue making innovative waves — if companies are willing to boldly embrace an intelligent talent strategy now. 

What’s the tech industry up against in Ottawa? 

Competing amid the waves and tides of this market requires companies to retain the right talent. But, as we know, especially in the tech space, today’s talent needs evolve very rapidly. That makes it critical for organizations to embrace an intelligent talent strategy now, one that’s capable of identifying, retaining, upskilling and shifting talent to accelerate growth and drive Ottawa tech forward.

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Even as our region’s tech sector continues to thrive, a talent dilemma has taken shape across the space. The pace of change is perpetually accelerating. Functional areas are becoming more specialized and employees themselves are emerging from the pandemic fundamentally changed. They are exhausted and more focused than ever on the need for flexibility at work. 

A recent EY study showed that, although employees felt empowered, nearly half were likely to leave their employer in the next 12 months. The tech sector is among those with the highest flight risk. In fact, 60 per cent of those working in the technology/hardware space thought they’d be changing jobs within one year — the highest of any sector included in the survey. This sentiment adds to a number of pervasive issues all pointing to a less than ideal employee experience. 

In tech and beyond, employees are increasingly: 

Busier: Weekly meeting time for the average Microsoft Teams user is up 252 per cent — and chats sent per person each week have jumped 32 per cent — since 2020. Meanwhile, workdays are longer and after-hours and weekend work are up 28 per cent and 14 per cent, respectively.

Stretched: The 2022 Asana Anatomy of Work Index statistics showed employees spent 129 hours in unnecessary meetings and 129 hours on duplicative work since 2021. 

Burned out: The Great Resignation is driving a Great Exhaustion among those left behind. Some surveys indicate as many as 81 per cent of employees today are burned out. 

Disconnected: Employees are looking for a different sense of culture and connectedness as the pandemic recedes. On the one hand, 80 per cent of employees want to work remotely at least two days per week. In fact, nine out of 10 employees want flexibility and 54 per cent are willing to quit if they don’t get it. That said, when they do come into the office, employees are seeking purposeful interactions and a strong value proposition. Where currently there is no differentiation, many employees are taking the same virtual meetings from an office desk rather than a kitchen table. In May 2022, Forbes reported in one of its career articles that some 42 per cent of workers plan to leave their current employer because of that employer’s inability to maintain connectedness and culture.

Taken together, this reflects a perfect storm ahead for tech companies here and everywhere. Talent migration, which is traditionally higher in the tech space, could remain very unruly for the next 10 years. It will only be amplified by the mass departure of Gen X and boomers retiring in huge numbers between 2025 and 2040. 

All of this means many senior, critical and hard-to-hire roles across Ottawa’s tech sector will be impacted. 

Riding shotgun with the incredible pace of technology is the need for emerging skills to deliver and compete. The emerging talent workforce complement and types of roles will be very different from today, but these core skill sets are needed today to keep up with tomorrow. 

Industry transformation will also continue to shift the types of skills in demand. Where traditional industries and roles have cooled, technology, automation and other advanced industries in Ottawa and beyond are feeling the squeeze of surging demand for new skills and headcount. And identifying, attracting and retaining top global talent will become increasingly more challenging in the months and years ahead. 

While recession-like employment stats redefined the market since last fall, tech organizations shouldn’t bet on a slowed economy to tip the talent scales back in their favour. There’s simply too much happening at once for that to be the case.

How can tech organizations address widening talent gaps now? 

Getting ahead of these challenges before they throw organizations — and their momentum — off-course requires employers to widen their talent aperture and curate employee growth opportunities beyond current skills. In this environment, adapting and reskilling will be key. It’s time to build an intelligent, data-driven talent strategy that’s aligned with organizational goals, growth and diversification. 

What does that mean for tech companies here? 

Ground your strategy in talent intelligence. Truly effective talent strategies are grounded in real-time analytics. Put simply: you must build skills in the organization before you go out and buy them in the marketplace. That requires organizations to put humans at the centre of the strategy itself. This is key to generating the kind of agility and resilience Ottawa’s tech sector will need to compete overall. 

Flip the talent narrative toward skills identification and capability mapping. Across tech, hiring managers are looking less toward qualifications and experience and more toward skills and interests. And rightfully so. When you know more about the adjacent skills and capabilities the organization already has, you can build or transfer skills seamlessly. That understanding also empowers you to strengthen learning and development channels to support this approach. This makes organizations less reliant on external hires and better able to innovate, flex and seize opportunities quickly. 

Differentiate employee experiences. Once recruited, employees need good reasons to stick around. Create that environment by stepping away from the assembly line vibe that has defined the pandemic years — endless emails, calls, tasks and machine-like functionality — to shift work culture and behaviour back towards face-to-face collaboration and celebration. That human connectedness and overall employee experience is a huge factor in driving overall success. You must first create room for employees to feel less busy and more engaged so they can become more productive. Look inward and ask why top global talent should join your organization and invest in the purposeful factors that set you apart. Be deliberate and genuine in your approach. 

Think longer term. To remain competitive and support growth over the longer term, your talent strategy must be well-defined and clearly linked to your five-year strategic plan. Integrating these two can help position talent as a strategic lever capable of delivering better business outcomes. This is how you tee the organization up to diversify into new products and sectors, explore growth through mergers and acquisitions, and so much more. 

What’s the bottom line for Ottawa’s tech companies? 

Intelligent talent strategies align what the business is trying to achieve with the people most needed to get there. An integrated strategy that’s built on current data, tied to business imperatives and bolstered by smart investments empowers organizations to address gaps, needs and redundancies by mining internal talent. It offers up new ways to recruit and keep talent, becoming an attraction model in and of itself. 

When your talent system is better than that of the competition, you unleash new ways to compete. After all, your company is the sum of its people, their capabilities and the working environment you create together. That’s everything in a market that looks different every single day.

Juliet Nicol is a partner with people advisory services at EY, and Kevin Robson is a manager with people advisory services at EY.

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