Universities have a role to play in addressing BC’s tech talent crunch: report

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BC faces the perils of “brain drain 2.0.”

British Columbia’s tech sector is now one of the most important drivers of the province’s economy. Local tech firms achieved record levels of venture funding last year, while nearly every other industry has become increasingly dependent on technology to survive.

Despite these positive signs, the province’s digital economy faces a challenge that could threaten to halt future growth: the enduring struggle for talent.

A new white paper explores the role universities can play in priming its students for a career in tech and fuelling BC’s talent pipeline. The report, released last week by University Canada West, gathered opinions and insights from industry participants on how academia and industry can collaborate to fill the current gaps in BC’s workforce.

“Most revealing was that many of the issues, insights and ideas that we heard aren’t new,” the report said. “What this tells us is that, as a sector, we haven’t yet acted on them.”

BC faces ‘brain drain 2.0’

Though BC’s talent crunch has existed for years, University Canada West’s report notes that the pandemic has further intensified competition for labour. As the pandemic has allowed BC residents to work for international firms remotely, the province now faces what the report called a “brain drain 2.0.”

“The pandemic has really taught many of the companies that you can stay where you are, you can give a secure internet link, and [employees can] work anywhere in the world,” Sheldon Levy, interim president of University Canada West, told BetaKit. “On the one hand, it creates increased competition, but on the other hand, it provides British Columbia’s companies with the same ability to attract.”

“Most revealing was that many of the issues, insights and ideas that we heard aren’t new. What this tells us is that, as a sector, we haven’t yet acted on them.”

Levy indicated that the need to address BC’s talent drought is more urgent than many may realize. He said unless universities start to aggressively pursue the talent gap at every level, local companies will not reach scale fast enough to stay alive.

“It’s like the boiling frog syndrome,” Levy said. “Every year, we say ‘Well, the calamity hasn’t happened, so let’s keep on going and in 10 years, it might [improve],’” he said. “The problem is believing that the frog has 10 years left of life.”

Engaging in innovation and entrepreneurship is the key for universities to stay relevant and contribute to Canada’s economy in a positive and meaningful way.

In the last few decades, many universities have moved from merely educating students to a more concerted effort to support business activity and entrepreneurship. Universities have become particularly engaged with the tech sector, often directly partnering with startups, Big Tech firms, and government to support various innovation agendas.

As BC works to build a more robust talent funnel, University Canada West’s white paper argued that universities have a duty to help build the workforce that local tech companies need and identified several educational opportunities that universities can act on.

Preparing students for the future

The report notes one way that universities can work to address the talent gap is to help students hone a diverse skill set that they can later apply to their careers. In the last year alone, several initiatives between industry and academia have launched to help build in-demand skills.

One of these initiatives was a partnership between Microsoft Canada, AltaML, the University of Waterloo, and others focused on training students in sought-after areas, such as artificial intelligence and web application design.

Elka Walsh, the National Learning and Skills Lead at Microsoft, said universities need to focus on developing not only hard skills, such as coding and marketing, but also soft skills, such as critical thinking and teamwork.

“This is an opportunity for us to develop in our students the empathy, the innovation, the creativity, and the critical thinking skills, to ask questions, to be brave and courageous and to wonder and be curious,” Walsh, who participated in University Canada West’s report, told BetaKit.

As students cultivate their skillset, the paper also notes that universities should rethink how students are assessed. The paper said companies are looking for people with different perspectives who can bring unique solutions, noting that universities can help by “rewarding differences and championing interdisciplinary learning.”

Walsh said the traditional multiple-choice or short-answer approach to student assessment doesn’t completely capture how a student is fairing in their education. “What we need to be thinking about is: how do we apply our knowledge to solve problems? And what does that need to look like?” she said.

Bringing academia and industry together, sooner

Industry can also play an important role in helping universities create curricula, according to the white paper. Levy noted that too often, academia and industry are considered two separate blocs that are brought together to enhance student learning. Instead, he said, industry and academia should be considered a single bloc, where the curriculum is co-developed by both parties to ensure students get the most from their education.

Co-op programs, which embed students in real-life work placements, have become increasingly popular at Canadian universities in the last decade. However, companies interviewed for the white paper indicated they often lack the necessary training capacity and time to best utilize students in these programs. This, the paper notes, gives universities an opportunity to step in and provide clearer and more structured processes to ensure the student’s work placement experience is valuable.

Shopify is one company that has focused on partnering with Canadian universities to offer workplace learning opportunities to post-secondary students. Shopify’s program, which has been used by several universities in Ontario, gives students the chance to do roughly half of their studies while on the job at Shopify’s offices.

Microsoft has also partnered with several universities to offer specific certifications as well as work-integrated learning programs for first and second-year students through its Canada Skills Program.

“​​As we are helping the institutions with the most up-to-date technical curriculum, they’re also helping us understand what it is that we can be doing, to make that learning relevant for the students,” Walsh added.

Growing talent is a collective responsibility

To amplify the growth of BC’s talent base, the white paper also urged that universities need to change the way the province is perceived in Canada and globally.

“All too often, the province is overshadowed by what’s going on in Montréal and Toronto or Seattle and Silicon Valley,” the report said. “It’s time to change this and universities can help make the case for talent to study and stay in BC.”

Universities can also play a role in changing the way youth and prospective students see a career in tech, the report said. The sector doesn’t just need software developers, Levy added, rather a wide range of expertise spanning almost every discipline. “We all have a responsibility to describe tech in a way that is both exciting and forward-looking, but also inclusive,” Levy said.

The white paper noted universities have a collective responsibility to ensure the next generation is not only prepared but excited to be a part of BC’s tech ecosystem. However, Levy said, change will require BC to see talent as an imperative to the ongoing health of the tech sector.

“Unless government, educational institutions, and industry make this their priority, the frog will eventually boil,” he added.

Download the full report below:
“​​Fuelling B.C.’s Tech Talent Pipeline: The role of universities

Image courtesy of UCW.

Isabelle Kirkwood

Isabelle Kirkwood

Isabelle is a Vancouver-based writer with 5+ years of experience in communications and journalism and a lifelong passion for telling stories. For over two years, she has reported on all sides of the Canadian startup ecosystem, from landmark venture deals to public policy, telling the stories of the founders putting Canadian tech on the map.

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