The Calgary Economic Development panel discussion held at Collision 2022 discussed the issue of attracting and retaining talent in its growing tech sector amid a time of turbulence and uncertainty.
Tech in Calgary is thriving
Arlin Dueck, executive director of talent at Harvest Builders, a Calgary-based talent sourcing company, broached the subject by suggesting that companies see the recent chaotic hiring scene as an opportunity to reevaluate their future staffing outlook.
“During the great resignation, it’s a great time for companies that are looking to extend their runway to be very mindful and strategic with their hiring,” said Dueck, who spearheads finding talent for early-stage ventures. “Anytime there’s a downturn, it’s often a good time to invest in your people and find really good people coming in that are gonna help you build towards the next iteration of what your company’s gonna look like when we emerge.”
According to Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek, Alberta has seen its tech sector gain traction in the past few years. The province, historically known for its energy sector, is now attracting tech talent from all over the country. Gondek said that while businesses are drawn by the cheaper properties compared to other major cities, the diverse and committed talent pool in Calgary convinces them to stay.
“When we look at talent…in 2021, I believe we had more talent hired in Alberta and in Calgary than you’re seeing in New York, than you’re seeing in Seattle,” added Jill Macdonald, vice president of business development at AltaML, who leads her company’s efforts in applying AI to both public and private sectors.
Macdonald also underscored the growth in opportunities in Calgary within the past few years.
“If you went back even three, four years ago, there wasn’t a big enough talent pool in Calgary and we were kind of shifting deckchairs, almost, between many of our partner organizations. We were almost poaching from each other,” she said. She attributed the scarcity to be a driving force behind the city’s push to create a larger pool.
That growth needed a concerted effort from both the private and public sectors. On that front, Mayor Gondek highlighted a gap in communication. She observed that regulators and policymakers need to better understand what investment in technology entails, and innovators need to present their ideas more clearly.
“I think the danger that tech faces is that decision-makers and policy makers have no clue what you do, and we’re too scared to ask,” said Gondek. “So by unpacking all of your lingo and your terminology, we are better decision-makers now.”
To illustrate the point, Gondek pointed out that she had a difficult time understanding the difference between a startup and a scale-up, which caused confusion about how to spend the Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund, set up to attract and drive growth in the city.
Embracing diversity is key to growth
Despite Calgary’s tech sector now flanking its energy industry in the downtown core, there’s still work to be done. The panel agreed that embracing diversity is key to nurturing a greater talent pool. Not only does this bolster innovation in the immediate term, but it also enables greater potential in the long run.
“Immigration is a fundamental piece towards bringing in the world’s best talent,” said Dueck. “And we’ve seen how software developers play such a key role in the domain of companies we’ve already talked about today…Sometimes these developers, after accomplishing what they set out to accomplish after a few years and starting their next company, could very well turn into another unicorn. That’s really, really exciting.”
Additionally, Dueck noted that companies need to abandon the mindset that foreign workers are only there to fill a temporary need. He said that foreign workers seeking to find their permanent home in Canada should be provided with greater opportunities.
“The whole mindset, as far as I’m concerned, should be shifted in terms of how we treat these people who are coming in, who are so excited to come to Canada and build things and start a great life with their families,” said Dueck.
When asked about the greatest impetus that turns people away, Dueck noted that as with any relocation, uprooting an established life is still difficult for many.
“Life becomes the biggest sticking point,” said Dueck. “Whether it’s a partner, your children in school, whatever the case is…I think that’s honestly the biggest thing.”
Talent bleed continues to pose a problem
While attracting talent continues to be a focus for Calgary, another is to keep it there. Businesses, especially smaller businesses, have always had to face the issue of losing their talent to big tech.
Serene Yew, chief executive officer and director of technology at Pixeltree, a software development company for entrepreneurs, highlighted the discrepancy in an interview with IT World Canada.
“In Canada, for a full-time salaried senior developer…one hundred to one hundred fifty thousand would be a pretty good offer in Canada. But Amazon and Google will offer you three to four hundred thousand for the same role. You can’t really compete with that.
She explained that while the gap isn’t as great for junior developers, they’d still be making much more with big tech companies.
Yew felt this first hand at her own company when one of her favourite employees decided to switch.
“I didn’t think [the employee] was ever going to leave our company because of how bought in he was to our values and what we’re bringing to the city,” said Yew.
To mitigate this risk, Dueck encourages companies to create opportunities that are not just lucrative, but also meaningful. Still, he conceded that it’s a thorny problem.
“It’s a really challenging problem,” said Dueck. “This doesn’t solve the question completely. But if your company is effective in terms of driving a value prop that people can feel attached to, it should not be exclusively about salary, there has to be other components to a job.”
“There’s always going to be the people that leave for money, but that’s just the way they are,” added Gondek. “There’s something to be said for youth as well, when you’re chasing a dream. I think we’re starting to see a very different workforce. We’re starting to see people that need a little bit of space in their lives to take care of their aging parents, to take care of the kids, all of those things. And if you build a company that allows them that flexibility, they’re not going to leave you for money.”
More importantly, added Yew, is the need to hire people with potential and help them grow.
“One of the issues is that we actually have a lot of junior talent, but we don’t have a lot of companies that want to hire them,” she said. “If we have funding for the training to get junior developers up to speed, we’re just going to have more talent in the market.”