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B.C. tech companies complain of shortage of skilled workers

While the tech sector, which employs 92,700 people – more than forestry, mining and oil-and-gas in B.C. combined – continues to provide jobs that pay far more than others, companies say a shortage of talent is making it difficult to fill key job openings, according to a statement from the association on the release of its 2016 British Columbia Technology Report Card.

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B.C.'s growing tech industry faces a "talent crisis" that is limiting its growth and forcing companies to consider relocating out of the province, the British Columbia Tech Association says.

While the tech sector, which employs 92,700 people – more than forestry, mining and oil-and-gas in B.C. combined – continues to provide jobs that pay far more than others, companies say a shortage of talent is making it difficult to fill key job openings, according to a statement from the association on the release of its 2016 British Columbia Technology Report Card.

"It is the burning issue for most tech companies in the province," Bill Tam, president and CEO of the technology association, said in an interview on Thursday.

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"The thing that fuels growth in companies, especially in tech, is the human capital."

Much of the concern about talent is expressed in anecdotal terms, although the report card promises a more detailed assessment soon.

But the report says B.C. graduates the third-highest number of students from technical programs, but, on a per capita basis, this is lower than larger provinces such as Ontario, Quebec and Alberta.

And while B.C. does better than Alberta and Quebec in undergraduate degrees, its schools award fewer graduate degrees per 100,000 people than other provinces. The report says 17.2 per cent of undergrads in B.C. are in tech-related fields, compared with 19.9 per cent in Alberta and 18.6 per cent in Ontario. For graduate students, it is 22.2 per cent in B.C. compared with 33.7 per cent in Alberta and 30.2 per cent in Ontario.

The association has called on the B.C. government to invest $100-million in postsecondary institutions over the next three years to produce the required workers.

And it also wants the province to facilitate changes in the immigration system to allow talent to be brought in from abroad.

The concern about skilled tech workers is part of an otherwise rosy view of the potential for the industry.

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The B.C.'s tech sector includes such industry titans as Vision Critical and D-Wave. The industry, which occupies about 40 per cent of downtown Vancouver's commercial real estate, also has many lower-profile companies working in software.

Kostya Polyakov, a partner in technology, media and telecommunications with KPMG, which helped produce the report card, said the thing that jumps out in reviewing the sector is a "fantastic" growth rate of more than 6 per cent a year.

Mr. Polyakov noted that wages in the sector are annually worth more than $8-billion, and jobs are paying on average 76 per cent more than the average B.C. wage.

Employment in the sector has grown by 22 per cent from 2004 to 2009, but softened to 5.7 per cent in the past five years. The tech association produces its reports every two years.

Since the 2014 report, Mr. Tam said, the number of tech companies with more than 50 employees has increased 14 per cent. "We see this as a sign of the continual maturing that's happening in the ecosystem," he said. "It has created great momentum for companies but exacerbated access-to-talent challenges."

Mr. Tam said the shortage of talent is limiting the growth potential of tech companies and forcing them to consider other locations.

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Last month, Premier Christy Clark told The Globe and Mail her government will beef up funding to the postsecondary system to deal with the issue, but did not offer specific figures.

"There will be some announcements coming in the next little while with respect to investing in computer science in particular in universities. … It will be a significant amount," Ms. Clark said.

The Premier said the government is reviewing the advice it has received, and sorting through options with an eye to those that will yield immediate benefits.

In an interview on Thursday, Amrik Virk, the Minister for Technology, Innovation and Citizens' Services, said the province has been in talks with the federal government on bringing in more new Canadians with tech skills.

"That's going to be able to respond directly to what the tech sector needs," he said.

George Heyman, the B.C. NDP critic for technology and the green economy, said the opposition has long been calling for the government to spend more money on supporting the tech sector through such measures as education investments.

"Instead, they spent years focusing on a yet-to-materialize [liquefied natural gas] sector at the expense of other parts of the economy," Mr. Heyman said.

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About the Authors
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

Sean Silcoff joined The Globe and Mail in January, 2012, following an 18-year-career in journalism and communications. He previously worked as a columnist and Montreal correspondent for the National Post and as a staff writer at Canadian Business Magazine, where he was project co-ordinator of the magazine's inaugural Rich 100 list. More

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