It’s time to stop calling BC’s tech talent situation a “crisis”

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It’s no easy feat to get through a conversation on Canada’s growing tech landscape without someone mentioning the “talent crisis” that the sector is facing.

It’s been a topic of discussion for the last few years, starting when the sector began to experience particularly hard times on the talent front: job postings were staying open too long and it was difficult to pair the ideal candidate with the right role. Today, the lack of talent continues to be a big concern. According to PwC’s recent Tech Talent Trends 2019 report, 79 percent of CEOs cite the lack of availability of skills among their top three business concerns, and for good reason; more than half of the CEOs surveyed said that lack of skills significantly impacts their ability to operate effectively.

We have the building blocks we need to solve this challenge sooner than we think.
 

Despite this, the industry has continued to expand. Along with homegrown successes such as Hootsuite and Slack, a whos-who of Silicon Valley companies have started to open new offices in Vancouver, including Asana, Apple, Zenefits, Streak, and Lyft. These growth factors, while promising for the future of our industry, are putting additional strain on our traditional talent pools and talent acquisition strategies.

Across Canada, government at all levels has been supportive and responsive. Beyond the increased focus on STEM initiatives and K12 programs, our inviting immigration policies for skilled workers are held up by other jurisdictions as an innovative way to address skills shortages. But despite these efforts, there is fear that the talent crisis continues to grow.

I’m calling BS.

We have the building blocks we need to solve this challenge sooner than we think. We tend to look at immigration as a go-to solution when we talk about closing our talent gaps—and it’s a good solution, but it’s not the only one. To create a tech sector in the province that appeals to international top-tier executives and closes the talent gap, we need to continue to nurture our ecosystem. That means capitalizing on our local talent as well.

BC needs to think outside the box—or rather, outside the tech industry— for how to identify, develop and retain top talent. If we can learn to look for talent beyond the traditional tech-centric pathways, implement new ways to develop our current employees, and combine those efforts with Canada’s inviting immigration policies, we may find that the “talent crisis” is overblown at best.

It’s time to look past tech

While BC tech might have a lack of long-established anchor companies, the province has a huge number of companies in other industries—from retail to hospitality to resources—that got their start here and scaled to become globally competitive businesses.

If our ecosystem needs executives who have experienced growth at scale, we’ve got them in spades; all we need to do is facilitate greater cross-pollination between tech and other industries. A broader base of senior-level talent could be exactly what BC’s talent shortage is calling for. And considering how our knowledge workforce and innovation economy is spreading across sectors beyond tech, it’s not an unattainable goal.

The same is true when we look at mid-level talent. As we recruit managers and other professionals to the tech sector, there are so many who have been working in silos—whether in mining, retail, restaurants, or hotels—who could be reskilled for rewarding jobs in our industry. We need to be less stringent in identifying talent beyond the tech sector and more aggressive in how we access, manage, and upskill it.

Finding—and building—skills for growth

If BC’s tech companies look at the competencies of their existing employees, rather than their years of experience, I think they would be surprised to find that they’re already sitting on a talent goldmine. Instead of exclusively looking abroad to fill senior positions, companies should consider their own high-potential employees who have at least 80 percent of the necessary qualifications and are already immersed in the organization and its culture.

Our recent CEO survey found that Canadian CEOs see strong pipelines from educational institutions as the best way of closing the skills gap—but globally, CEOs put a higher premium on retraining and internal upskilling. When tech companies invest in the skillsets of their workforce—not just the tools handed to them—they’ll likely find that their issue wasn’t talent scarcity, but rather, their workforce strategy and priorities.

Not to mention, if we increase emphasis on removing biases and barriers to underrepresented groups in the workplace, organizations may find they already have much of the talent they need. PwC, #MoveTheDial, and MaRS’ co-produced benchmark report, Where’s The Dial Now?, highlights the prevalent gender disparity in the tech workforce noting that, while 45 percent of entry-level workers in the tech industry are female, only 25 percent go on to join the C-Suite and only 15 percent become CEOs. If we’re looking to increase access to senior-level talent, we need to put more emphasis on our Diversity & Inclusion initiatives to ensure representation—and career advancement—in the workforce.

Let’s empower those people first and foremost, while also thinking broadly about the attributes we’re training and selecting for. After all, as our operations become increasingly automated, soft skills such as emotional intelligence have never been more important; it’s time to treat these as must-haves, and not just optional assets.

Tech is horizontal—that works to our advantage

As digitalization and technology continue to transform BC’s workplaces, it creates both a challenge and an opportunity for retaining our high-level tech talent. A manager may come to Vancouver to work for a digital agency and, a couple of years later, she might be recruited by a construction company looking for someone with her skillset to build their digital infrastructure. That’s happening everywhere—and while it means that tech companies may sometimes lose mid- and senior-level talent to other sectors, it goes both ways.

As we develop a tech-enabled knowledge economy and innovation ecosystem — and as digital technology becomes a common denominator across all industries — we’ll have a wider, deeper pool of skilled talent to draw from.

Now, we just need to help our companies scale up, and that means making sure we attract new talent and cultivate existing expertise.

We’re an attractive destination

Instead of taking their businesses to well-established ecosystems elsewhere, companies in Canada, and BC especially, have a notable advantage: they can draw talent here. Our country is among the most welcoming, with proactive immigration policies that enable highly skilled tech workers to come here and get settled quickly. Our proximity to the United States is another selling point for immigrants—including Americans who want to come north. BC has an added bonus, sharing both a Pacific time zone and a West Coast vibe with Silicon Valley; for Californians, it’s just a short flight and an easy cultural fit.

And while it’s true that compensation is a contributing factor for attracting and retaining talent, it’s certainly not the only one. Often, people stay because they want to work on truly interesting, impactful projects, and there’s no shortage of those in Canada.

But it’s also important to remember that when people relocate for work, they’re not just joining a company—they’re joining a city, a community, an ecosystem, and they want to know there’s ample opportunity available to them. What if their job doesn’t work out? Or if they’ve gone as far as they can in one company? They need a wealth of alternatives—and for smaller markets such as BC, where the industry is still maturing, that presents a challenge.

Still, as we continue to nurture and develop our ecosystem by looking beyond the constraints of the tech industry and developing our senior-level talent, those challenges will diminish and the appeal of working in BC will continue to grow.

It’s time we stop calling our tech talent situation a crisis and start seeing all the opportunities for recruitment, upskilling, and retention that are right in front of us.

I’d love to hear more about the experiences companies in BC and the rest of Canada are having in their efforts to foster and attract talent. Get in touch—let’s continue the conversation.

@burkecpb

Image courtesy Unsplash

Cameron Burke

Cameron Burke

As Managing Director in the Technology practice of PwC Canada, I help lead the firm's Tech Sector strategy nationally. With deep knowledge and experience as an operator, entrepreneur, and adviser in the tech sector, I bring expertise in go-to-market strategy, SaaS business models, merger & acquisitions, corporate finance, licensing, strategy consulting, digital technologies & transformation.