Ottawa tech sector tight on space to grow, says CBRE's Hamilton

shaw centre
Editor's Note

This story was updated with comments from CBRE Ottawa managing director Shawn Hamilton.

Ottawa’s highly concentrated tech talent market may be in danger of stagnating if the city doesn’t find more room for local firms to grow, according to an analysis of CBRE’s annual tech talent scorecard.

CBRE’s annual report positions the nation’s capital at No. 19 in the real estate services firm’s top 50 tech talent markets across Canada and the United States. Topping this year’s list was San Francisco’s Bay Area, followed by Seattle and Toronto.

Ottawa’s 2019 ranking is a drop from last year’s spot at No. 13. Fellow Canadian cities Vancouver (No. 12) and Montreal (No. 13) edged out the capital in the latest rankings.

CBRE’s tech employment figures, sourced from Statistics Canada, show Ottawa’s tech sector contracted by 5.3 per cent from 2013 to 2018, with some 64,500 people employed in the sector as of April. The city’s contingent of software developers has dropped 40 per cent over those five years, standing at around 15,600 workers as of last year. At the same time, jobs in computer support and tech engineering-related fields grew 23.4 per cent and 12.9 per cent, respectively.

While some of the numbers look grim, CBRE Ottawa managing director Shawn Hamilton remains bullish on the Ottawa tech scene. Though he can’t speak to StatsCan’s methodology, he says he hasn’t seen the drop-off in losing 6,000 jobs reflected on the real estate market.

“We are seeing a disconnect between what Statistics Canada's numbers are telling us and what we're seeing on the street. And what we're seeing on the street is that companies are growing,” he says.

What’s most pressing to Hamilton, however, is a lack of space for those companies to grow into. CBRE stats show Ottawa’s office vacancy rate hit an eight-year low this past quarter, with availability in the central business district sinking to 6.7 per cent.

Though those figures alone aren’t worrying to Hamilton, he says the available office space is mostly divided into smaller chunks of real estate ‒ the lack of large blocks of space could hamper the expansion of downtown firms or discourage tech giants from landing in Ottawa.

“If you're looking for 50,000 square feet or greater in downtown Ottawa, right now, there's precious little to draw from,” he says. “We need more bigger blocks of space that can accommodate tech growth.”

Brain drain

One of the other concerns facing Ottawa companies is a drain on talent coming out of the city’s universities. While tech hubs such as Toronto and San Francisco are able to attract new talent to the city, CBRE’s report shows Ottawa is net negative on degrees granted vs. jobs added in the past five years.

While he says Ottawa’s post-secondary institutions are “world-class,” Hamilton says more alignment between tech firms and academic curricula – such as Shopify’s partnership to train Carleton University computer science students at the firm’s Ottawa headquarters – would help to convince homegrown talent to stay.

Despite the apparent drop in magnitude of jobs in the field, Ottawa still took the No. 2 spot in tech talent concentration, or the relative representation of tech workers across the city’s entire labour market. Ottawa’s tech sector represents 9.9 per cent of the city’s entire workforce, narrowly edged out by San Francisco at an even 10 per cent.

While the public sector remains Ottawa’s top employer, and likely will for the foreseeable future, Hamilton says the city’s highly educated workforce and concentration of tech workers are key differentiators when positioning the capital as a destination in the global war for talent.

“It's all a question of perception. Do we want to look at ourselves as a government town? I think there’s truth to that. But I think we should also acknowledge the fact that we are a true tech hub,” he says.