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Report On Business CEOs worry an Amazon headquarters in Ontario would soak up tech talent

Mayors from across Canada, including those in the Greater Toronto Area, have announced their intention to compete for the Seattle-based company’s second headquarters, dubbed HQ2.

Carlos Jasso/REUTERS

Ontario has so few available workers with high-technology skills that it would be a "big problem" if Amazon.com Inc. chose the province to host a second headquarters, a panel of business executives has warned.

Mayors from across Canada, including those in the Greater Toronto Area, have announced their intention to compete for the Seattle-based company's second headquarters, dubbed HQ2. The online retailing giant has said the project would create 50,000 jobs and bring more than $5-billion (U.S.) in investment.

A project of that size would soak up much of the skilled talent in Ontario's labour market, said Stephen Carlisle, president of General Motors of Canada. Companies are already struggling to hire workers with science or technology skills, he and other executives warned at a panel about increasing business productivity in Ontario.

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"What if Amazon dropped in here? That would be a big problem. A happy problem on the one hand, because it's huge employment that's aligned with a very bright future. But, on the other hand, it would tend to crowd out, so I don't know that we've got the capacity or the capability to keep up," Mr. Carlisle said.

While the federal and provincial governments are looking to attract foreign capital to create more jobs in highly skilled areas in Canada, Mr. Carlisle warned that they need to make sure companies don't open up shop only to discover that the labour they need isn't available.

Microsoft Canada's Mary-Ellen Anderson echoed his comments. She said she's currently building a new team in this country in her role as a vice-president for the tech giant. Microsoft has more than 100 openings in Canada, she said, and her efforts to hire skilled labour have already "caused some problems.

"One of the things that we talk a lot about is that we have to be really careful because we start kind of stealing [workers] from our partners or stealing from our customers. So we focus a lot on [whether] we can bring in [workers] from other markets," Ms. Anderson told the panel.

One of the problems facing Ontario, she said, is the province's failure to attract female students into science or technology programs, despite years of attempts from governments and employers to make those fields more attractive.

"Something like one in 100 young girls wants to go into STEM," she said, using the acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. "What catastrophe is happening that we still can't get young girls to be interested in these careers? These careers that are a licence to print money."

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The shortage of skilled labour is a problem the provincial government is trying to fix, Ontario's Minister of Economic Development told The Globe and Mail.

"Stephen is bang on," Brad Duguid said of Mr. Carlisle's warning about the impact of an Amazon-sized arrival on Ontario's labour market. "While we're graduating 40,000 tech grads every year and they're among the most sought-after in the world, we're in the process of expanding that pipeline now. If we landed an investment the size of Amazon, we wouldn't have the pipeline today to accommodate the need."

Mr. Duguid said he's concerned that start-ups in the province would struggle to attract the skilled workers they need. "Whether we get Amazon or not, we should be growing that pipeline anyways."

According to Mr. Duguid, whose office is responsible for attracting Amazon, one advantage Canada has over the United States is an immigration system that is more flexible and willing to accommodate the thousands of highly skilled workers that such a project would require.

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