Calgary is experiencing a boom in its IT industry, with more than one large tech company planning to set up shop in the city. But is there enough talent in Alberta to meet the increased demand for tech workers?
Calgary is experiencing a boom in its information technology (IT) industry, with more than one large tech company planning to set up shop in the city.
In June, India-based global tech company Mphasis announced it would open its Canadian headquarters in Calgary, creating up to 1,000 jobs.
Earlier this month, Amazon Web Services (AWS) — the cloud division of tech giant Amazon — said it plans to open a cloud computing hub near Calgary that will bring billions of dollars of investment to the region.
Finally, there’s Plug and Play Alberta — a tech accelerator that’s setting up its headquarters in Calgary and aiming to help connect local startups with Silicon Valley. The company is getting up to $7 million from the City of Calgary over the next five years, according to a news release from the city issued last Tuesday.
But with all this investment in Calgary’s tech industry, is there enough talent in Alberta to meet the increased demand for IT workers?
Issues in the talent pipeline
Scott Hirsch is the chief technology officer for TalentMarketplace, an IT recruitment platform connecting employers with jobseekers. The company has some clients in Alberta though it is primarily based in Vancouver, B.C.
In Hirsch’s opinion, there is not enough talent in Alberta to meet the demand of large technology companies planning to establish a presence in Calgary.
“The pipelines for talent coming out of university or other programs and stuff like that, they’re not generating enough talent in a fast enough way and in a high-quality way to be able to service the current market,” Hirsch said.
Hirsch said there are not enough students entering programs like software engineering and computer science that will lead to jobs in tech, and those programs aren’t being advertised well enough.
But not everyone shares Hirsch’s opinion about the issue of tech talent shortage in Alberta.
Jim Gibson, chief catalyst at the School for Advanced Digital Technology at Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), said “there’s always a lag between supply and demand,” but the lack of skilled tech workers in Alberta is not a long term issue.
“We need to move quickly, but we need to be patient that things take some time,” said Gibson.
According to Gibson, there are three major solutions for the current shortage of skilled IT workers in Alberta.
First, the government and post-secondary institutions need to invest in the programs and degrees that will give students the skills to work in tech companies.
But the provincial government’s spending has not lined up with this goal. The UCP government’s 2021 budget included a reduction of 5.4 per cent, or $135 million, for the operations of Alberta’s universities and colleges.
However, some initiatives to invest in tech education are already happening, like the SAIT’s School for Advanced Digital Technology, which was just established in September 2020.
Among other programs, the school provides boot camps of 12 to 14 weeks on topics like applied machine learning and applied product management. Those boot camps provide micro-credentials that could help speed up the education process and get more workers in the industry, rather than having students get a two- or four-year degree.
All that leads to the second solution: reskilling — training workers in other sectors to transfer and adapt their skills to the tech industry.
There are programs such as EDGE UP (Energy to Digital Growth Education and Upskilling Project) that the City of Calgary started to help workers transition to the tech industry.
Jeanette Sutherland, director of EDGE UP, said investment in post-secondary education is critical but micro-credential programs and upskilling workers are just as important.
“We’ve seen approximately a 150 per cent increase in tech training programs alone in Calgary in the past couple of years. So that’s encouraging. But yes, we’ve got a long way to go,” she said.
Sutherland said EDGE UP conducted a pilot program last year with 98 participants who formerly worked in the oil and gas industry and were trained to transition their skills to IT. Those workers ended up in the financial tech industry.
Sutherland said the program is continuing this year and the next with 320 new participants.
Gibson’s third and final solution is attracting people to Calgary, which he said is a complex problem.
“How do we attract people from painting Calgary and Alberta as a place that has a great quality of life?” he said.
Big tech vs. local companies
One concern that Gibson and Hirsch share is that big tech companies like Amazon will hog all the local talent by offering high wages and benefits that small businesses simply can’t afford.
Gibson said it’s important that tech companies entering Alberta invest in local schools and talent.
Sherif Saadawi, director of corporate partnership at Plug and Play, said in an email to CBC Calgary that the company wants to make “close ties to post-secondary institutions in Calgary” as a source for future talent.
He also said there will be internships available for Calgary students at the company’s accelerator programs.
Hirsch said big companies like Amazon could hire talent from other countries if they can’t find enough locally, especially if that international talent is cheaper than Calgarian workers.
“If my entire office is working from home anyways, there really isn’t a difference necessarily, other than maybe time zones, for somebody working in India versus somebody working locally in Calgary,” he said.
But hiring workers from overseas isn’t all bad news, according to Hirsch. If Canada recruits tech workers from India, Brazil and other countries to settle here, it could help address the talent shortage.
“If these folks can get these tech jobs, they’re going to be more successful when they do land here and they’re more productive in society overall.”
More investments coming
The City of Calgary says it will also invest $6 million into a venture capital fund in an effort to boost the city’s growing tech sector.
The investment will be made by the Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund (OCIF), a wholly owned subsidiary of the City of Calgary that aims to help diversify Calgary’s economy.
OCIF says it has selected Accelerate Fund III LP, an early-stage angel co-investment fund managed by Yaletown Partners in partnership with non-profit organization The A100.
Under the terms of the agreement, Accelerate Fund III will match OCIF’s contribution, generating a total of $12 million in investment capital for Calgary-based businesses.
Accelerate Fund III was launched in May 2020. The total value of the fund, with the contribution from OCIF, is expected to reach nearly $23 million.
OCIF issued a request for proposals earlier this year to find a venture capital partner. At the time, OCIF chair Mark Blackwell said Calgary would be the first municipality in the country to use city dollars to create a pool of venture capital for early-stage local businesses.