Growing the tech talent pool

Our tech sector has been booming. Annual revenues for the 878 known technology firms in the Greater Victoria area have reached $1.7 billion and they now directly employ 12,600 skilled workers.

While this unprecedented growth has skyrocketed the sector into the number one spot as Victoria’s largest private industry, it has also created some new challenges.

According to surveys conducted by VIATeC, Victoria’s technology industry association, the most significant barrier to growth for local tech firms is recruitment and retention of skilled workers. Victoria is a perennial leader in employment statistics for Canada with unemployment numbers in the three per cent range. This reflects a strong economy but also clearly indicates we do not have a pool of skilled workers to draw from to maintain consistent growth.

The VIATeC 25 is an annual listing of the largest technology companies on Vancouver Island based on revenues for companies founded or headquartered on the Island. In 2003, the top 25 boasted $308 million in revenues and directly employed 1,446 people. In 2007, the top 25 tech firms accounted for $866 million in revenues and directly employed 2,474.

The tech sector is very excited by this. In 2007, an independent study found the industry had grown to $1.7 billion and, a few months later, the VIATeC 25 reinforced this fact by showing that the industry’s largest companies had annual revenues nearly triple those of just five years before.


What was also clear was that companies were struggling to find skilled workers to maintain their growth. While revenues grew 180 per cent in five years, the employment numbers at those same companies grew only 70 per cent. During this time period, we saw the number of vacant jobs posted on the VIATeC online job board go from 20 jobs in February, 2005 up to 172 jobs in February this year.

Technology companies need to be innovative to survive. Credit to our local entrepreneurs, they have found a way to meet customer needs, develop new technologies, and keep up with demand in spite of the tight job market. Nonetheless, it is likely that growth is slowing due to the difficulty companies face in finding suitable skilled workers. It’s not for lack of market demand.

Greater Victoria has a very tight-knit technology community, and they do not want to make the same mistakes made in other parts of the world. If the number of workers available does not increase, then companies are forced to recruit from other local technology firms. Actions like this change a community forever.

To grow the local talent pool, the tech sector is taking a multi-faceted approach. Instead of just looking at short-term actions, talent is being viewed as a continuum. A natural first place to start is to attract experienced workers from other parts of Canada and the world.

Since 2002, a key tool has been the VIATeC online job board. It has global reach and over 2,250 people from around the world subscribe to the accompanying bulletin. However, more pro-active measures are needed to get the attention of workers in other markets, so VIATeC recently went with 35 other B.C. companies on a career fair tour of southern Ontario that drew over 2,000 attendees in the four cities visited. Fortunately, the weather co-operated and provided the second coldest day of the year in Toronto, making the videos of sunny Victoria and west coast living all the more appealing. In the end, 180 qualified technology workers signed up for additional information about our local technology sector after expressing interest in moving here.

In the spring, VIATeC also joined the B.C. Technology Industries Association on a mission to San Francisco specifically targeted at Canadian expatriates with expiring work visas. Fortunately, Victoria now has direct flights to San Francisco, home to a vast number of technology workers. The Greater Victoria Development Agency coordinated an effort to fill the first flight, and members of the local tech community were happy to support the effort and to use the visit to seek out additional potential recruits.

Planning for the future
Seeking experienced skilled talent in other cities is a natural reaction to our current talent crunch, but it‘s only the beginning. Victoria has so much to offer that we will always generate interest from people around the world willing to come here. But how do we take steps to grow our own talent?

To be effective, the Victoria tech sector is focussing on other ways to ease coming recruitment challenges and engage the talent of the future.

Science fairs may not be a part of the school curriculum in B.C. but they are often the first place young learners begin to apply scientific methods, engage in independent study, discover innovation, and truly develop as confident public speakers and communicators. Currently, Greater Victoria holds 17 science fairs and, on behalf of the tech sector, VIATeC has committed to support these efforts and provide sponsorships, judges, and promotional support. We aim to grow the number of fairs and participants. If we can help students discover innovation and help them see a future in science, math, engineering, or communications at an early age, it is likely that this will have an impact on their decisions throughout their academic and post-academic careers.

A second key marker in the talent continuum is in high school where students begin to select elective courses and consider post-secondary options and careers. The construction trades are a great example of an industry that realized it had recruitment issues and responded by promoting the opportunities for a career in the trades to students in high school. The tech sector has to play catch-up for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, we are late to the game and have not invested nearly a decade into filling the funnel with interested employees for the future. Second, not only students, but also their parents and guidance counsellors need information on the academic and career opportunities in the tech sector.

Many consider careers as teacher, police officer, doctor, or lawyer because they have either interacted with one, know one, or believe they know what those fields are like, thanks to TV programs. It is safe to say that fewer people understand what a programmer or an engineer does than what a nurse does.

Add to this the ongoing hangover of the dot-com bubble bursting. I have said publicly many times that we still feel the impacts of that today because most of the graduates we have seen in recent years made academic and career choices right as their parents were losing a fortune on Nortel. Even if technology has recovered and learned much from that challenging time, the perception of the sector still suffers. As an industry, we plan to spend more time providing information and support to students and their advisors at these key decision points.

The third key marker is recent graduates. Victoria is fortunate to have world-class post-secondary institutions like Camosun College, Royal Roads, and the University of Victoria. UVic alone has nearly 20,000 students enrolled, and we hope to retain as many of these educated and talented individuals as possible. Co-op programs have proven a great tool and, to build on this, the industry is willing to invest time and resources into highlighting the companies and the opportunities available to these soon-to-be grads before we lose them to other parts of the world.

I came to Victoria to attend Royal Roads and, thanks to the opportunities in the technology sector, I didn’t have to return to Toronto to build my career. Today, there are exponentially more opportunities in our sector, and the local tech community needs to focus on all of the above areas to make sure it stays that way.