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B.C. tech sector growing so fast it’s hard to measure size of industry

A recent study broke down B.C. tech into five categories. One is information and communications, which includes companies such as Vancouver’s powerhouse Hootsuite, whose building is seen here in August 2016.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The tech sector in Vancouver, Victoria and Kelowna is growing so fast that industry associations and leasing agencies are scrambling to define its size and component parts.

The newest effort comes from Colliers International in Vancouver, which has calculated that tech now accounts for 14 per cent of all office space in the Lower Mainland and 40 per cent of current demand for new office space.

With 75,000 employees, the sector is now bigger than oil and gas, forestry and mining-related activity in the region.

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In Victoria, tech companies now occupy 17 per cent of all office space; in Kelowna, 10 per cent.

And the tech sector is getting so big that Colliers has decided from now on to track it separately from other office uses, as well as breaking it down into four categories: technology, advertising, media and information.

"It's an industry that cannot be defined under one brand," said Curtis Scott, Colliers' manager for market intelligence in Western Canada. "We can no longer identify it as one broad sector."

That's somewhat in line with what other agencies are doing, although with differences. Bill Tam, the CEO of BC Tech Association, said his group recently published a study by KPMG also trying to assess the size of the sector.

It defined tech in B.C. as falling into five categories.

One is information and communications, which includes companies such as Vancouver's powerhouse Hootsuite. The second is digital media and entertainment, which encompasses both local companies such as A Thinking Ape and branches of non-Canadian companies such as Sony Pictures Imageworks.

A third category is life sciences and health, including some of the spinoff companies working in stem-cell technology as a result of discoveries at the University of British Columbia. Fourth is clean tech, which includes local companies such as Ballard Power and Westport. The fifth is IT and engineering, which includes engineering firms – Stantec, for example – and companies such as IBM.

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But what both that study and studies from brokerages such as Colliers and CBRE have agreed on is that the technology sector is booming in the province.

"There has been 14.5-per-cent growth over the past two years. The tech sector has grown at about two times the rate of the province," said Mr. Tam.

James Raymond, the manager of research and analysis at the Vancouver Economic Commission, said that is not stopping and may even accelerate with the recent political changes in the United States.

"We constantly have a pipeline of companies interested in coming here. And we're predicting more interest under president-elect Trump," he said.

Vancouver is still one of the smallest tech markets in the top 50 that are tracked by CBRE in North America.

The biggest, in an industry now estimated to account for 4.8-million employees on the continent, are the San Francisco Bay area, Washington, D.C., and Seattle, Wash.

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But Mr. Raymond and Mr. Tam said Vancouver continues to attract interest for several reasons.

First, it has a large labour pool of university-educated, tech-ready employees. The millennial population is increasing in the city, at five per cent between 2009 and 2014 – a key indicator for tech companies that CBRE tracks. Although that growth rate is half of Seattle's, it's still higher than in such cities as Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta.

Second, the charge for office space is relatively modest – about $40 (U.S.) a square foot, compared with $75 in New York, $60 in San Francisco, and $36 in Boston and Washington, D.C.

And Canada's immigration policies, which are more liberal than the United States, have always meant that Vancouver has a diverse international population to draw on.

The tech wages here are still not comparable to other cities.

"It's not San Francisco money, it's not Seattle money," said Mr. Raymond. But a junior software developer now makes $75,000 and can rapidly advance to more than $100,000 he said. A September study showed that wages have increased by 5.8 per cent in the past year.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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