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Sophia Bennaceur of Morgan Stanley in Montreal. The bank has promoted Ms. Bennaceur to lead the hub and its Montreal region, as the war for tech talent heats up and large Canadian banks also push to build up their tech staff.Handout

U.S. investment bank Morgan Stanley MS-N, which has been hiring aggressively throughout the pandemic to expand its Montreal technology hub, has promoted Sophia Bennaceur to lead the office as it plans to add hundreds more staff this year.

Ms. Bennaceur will take over as the regional head of Morgan Stanley in Montreal on May 1, leading a technology centre with 2,700 tech professionals and engineers. Almost half those employees were hired amid the pandemic, and Ms. Bennaceur said in an interview that she expects the bank will continue its hiring spree even with intense competition for talent.

Morgan Stanley’s goal is to push the staff count at the Montreal hub above 3,000 by the end of this year. It houses app and software developers, cloud engineers, cybersecurity experts and artificial-intelligence and machine-learning specialists who develop technology for all units of the bank, from securities and wealth management to electronic trading and compliance. The U.S. bank’s ambitious expansion of its roster of tech talent has made Montreal its largest office in Canada and one of its largest tech centres anywhere.

But Morgan Stanley is certainly no outlier in that regard. Banks and other large businesses are fighting a fierce war for talent, driven by labour shortages, changing behaviour in the pandemic and an urgent need to speed up the digital transformation of entire industries. Canada’s largest banks have also been staffing up, especially with technology roles, as they make significant investments in technologies such as cloud computing and artificial intelligence and bolster their cyberdefences.

Toronto-Dominion Bank TD-T is planning to fill more than 2,000 technology roles this year, aiming to add key skills in software development, machine learning and automation.

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Morgan Stanley, an investment banking powerhouse, set up its technology hub in Montreal in 2008 with about 160 employees, expanding to about 1,200 by 2017. But its growth really took off in the past two years. It has been spending billions of dollars each year on technology to compete with major banks trying to transform traditional banking operations with automation and digitization and to fend off competition from financial technology startups.

“Given the fact that technology is at the forefront of the bank’s strategy, I don’t have a precise view of what would be the future, but I don’t see why we shouldn’t continue to grow,” Ms. Bennaceur said. “I don’t say that it’s not a challenge, but it’s something that we have accomplished over the last year.”

Most recently, Ms. Bennaceur was the chief operating officer of the Montreal office and has a track record that includes more than 20 years in investment banking. She started her career in Paris but has spent the past two decades in Montreal, including 13 years at the local office of French bank Société Générale S.A.

“I am not a technologist,” she said. “But I’ve been working with technology all my career in the investment bank.”

To staff up in a tight job market, Morgan Stanley’s Montreal hub has a number of strategies. The most obvious is to offer competitive salaries and benefits, but the bank has also poached staff from across the technology sector, promising opportunities for career advancement in a large company, as well as flexible, hybrid working arrangements that allow employees to work two to three days a week at home.

“We know that people are looking for flexibility and we are offering that,” Ms. Bennaceur said.

In the past, Morgan Stanley has taken advantage of payroll-tax credits that encourage foreign companies to expand their technology-related operations in Quebec, which have been controversial among the province’s business leaders.

The bank also hires from outside Canada for Montreal-based jobs, participating in international recruitment events in Europe and North Africa hosted by investment promotion agency Montréal International. It is helped by Canadian immigration policies that offer a fast track to some tech workers. And it recruits about 150 graduates and interns from universities and colleges each year.

“We clearly want to focus on the Montreal area given the talent pool that we have,” Ms. Bennaceur said.

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