Ask the leader of any technology company and they’ll tell you that hiring engineers, data scientists or mathematicians is one of their biggest challenges. STEM careers are the fastest growing part of the labour market, and some estimates put the need for technology workers at 216,000 jobs by 2021. To explore the talent gap, the FP talked to innovators who have left Canada to pursue opportunities with big multinational companies, and also those who have moved here to be a part of this country’s digital transformation. You can find all of our coverage here.
The Toronto-Waterloo corridor has developed a reputation for being home to some of the best science and technology universities in the world. Top researchers from around the globe are attracted to Canada and our universities, and with them come the best and brightest graduate students that study under these visionaries and thought leaders. This critical mass of talent creates strong undergraduate programming in the most exciting areas of technology.
It is no coincidence that the University of Toronto is home to Geoffrey Hinton and his groundbreaking work on artificial neural networks, and also a hotspot for newly trained engineers and scientists in the area of artificial intelligence. Layer in the co-op education programs pioneered at the University of Waterloo, and the Toronto-Waterloo region has a proven ability to develop and mature technical talent at scale.
As someone who is responsible for hiring at Wave Financial Inc., a Toronto-based financial technology company, it is interesting to note that this well-kept secret is not a secret anymore. Google LLC, Microsoft Corp., Uber Technologies Inc. and other big and smaller technology companies from San Francisco and other U.S. cities are now setting up in Canada with aggressive hiring targets, adding more pressure on the hot market for the best talent in tech.
Read the entire Innovation Nation series
Across the seven universities in the Greater Toronto Area, almost 54,000 engineering, math and computer science students graduated in 2016 alone. That’s a good thing, because for the second year running, Toronto is North America’s fastest-growing tech market by adding 28,900 tech jobs in 2017, a 13.6 per cent year-over-year increase, according to CBRE’s annual Scoring Tech Talent Report. The rapid growth has allowed Toronto to become the first Canadian city to break into the report’s top five, joining San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and New York. The report, which ranks 50 U.S. and Canadian markets according to their ability to attract and grow tech talent, also found that Toronto has the third-highest concentration of tech talent at 8.9 per cent (the U.S. national average is 3.5 per cent). Interestingly, Ottawa has the highest concentration of tech talent at 11.2 per cent among the 50 cities analyzed.
Canada’s support of immigration and our approach to multiculturalism not only attracts top global researchers to our universities, but also top talent to our companies. International job applicants increased this year as Canada launched the Global Talent Stream, a pilot program that helps companies quickly access highly skilled technical talent. Compared to the U.S.’s increasingly strict immigration laws, it only takes four weeks for Canada to grant visas to foreign workers and have them in the workplace. At Wave, we are a grateful beneficiary of this program. We’ve had a number of talented engineers join us over the past year, including our chief technology officer, Ideshini Naidoo, an accomplished leader who joined us from South Africa to lead our technology teams.
As an immigrant myself, I am grateful to Canada for the open doors I have encountered and for the opportunity to build a wonderful career and a new life for myself and my family in Toronto. I am part of a large community of hard-working people from many different places around the world, people who take nothing for granted and who have ambitions to build and invest in Canada.
Highly skilled and well-educated talent, and a diverse population thanks to welcoming immigration policies are Canadian competitive advantages. Clearly, we are doing something right. So why are technical program graduates leaving in such high numbers when we have so many jobs to fill?
Roughly 60 to 65 per cent of the graduating classes in software engineering leave for the U.S., according to the latest statistics. We often hear when hiring graduates at Wave that there is pressure from peers to work with large U.S. technology firms, pushed by a “California or bust” thought process. It’s become a status symbol to have a stint in Silicon Valley with a U.S. brand name on a resumé — and almost a sign of failure not to have one. We need to be less humble and a lot more active in promoting homegrown opportunities and celebrating our Canadian tech success stories.
There is also the opportunity to open up more seats in classrooms to create more engineers. It currently takes at least a 95-per-cent average to have an 85-per-cent chance of receiving an offer to study for a University of Waterloo software engineering degree. A 90-94-per-cent average gives you a mere 45-per-cent chance of acceptance. We need to expand undergraduate STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programming to meet the growing demand. As a mother of two high school graduates, I stand firm in the opinion that many of those with 90-per-cent averages would make wonderful engineers capable of changing the world, one line of code at a time.
At the same time, despite increasing tuitions, Canadian taxpayers continue to generously subsidize universities and undergraduate studies without a commitment from students to stay in Canada and contribute back through future economic activity and taxes.
Canada will struggle to fill approximately 216,000 technology-related positions by 2021. Imagine if we could cut in half the graduates that leave by being much better at promoting the innovation and opportunities that are happening here. The Canadian tech industry may be booming now, but we need to commit to a new pace for future growth. Imagine if we could support a message that said: “Made in Canada, proudly Canadian, stayed in Canada.”
Ashira Gobrin is senior vice-president, People and Culture, Wave Financial Inc.