Sheldon Levy is the interim president of University Canada West and special adviser to the Minister of Small Business & Export Promotion and International Trade.
Canada’s tech ecosystem is booming. The sector created 15,000 new jobs in 2021 and set new records for venture capital investment. And British Columbia is a global hub for this rapid expansion: Vancouver is now competing not only with its Canadian sister cities, but with major tech centres around the world.
But what they are all competing the hardest for is talent, which is in short supply. With one million job openings forecast in B.C. in the next decade, workers with tech skills are expected to be in high demand.
That’s why B.C. companies, leaders, thinkers and founders are calling on universities and industry to act more urgently to address the shortage and prepare the tech work force of the future. This was the conclusion of University Canada West’s new report, Fuelling the Tech Talent Pipeline: The role of universities.
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As a long-standing academic administrator who has had the good fortune to lead some of Canada’s most dynamic colleges and universities, I am struck by the fact that this isn’t the first call for urgent action on this issue – in B.C. or across the country.
In my 2019 report Getting to Scale: Accelerating Canada’s high-growth companies, I wrote that the supply of talented employees, managers and leaders had emerged “as the top issue with companies and ecosystem experts.” Similarly, in 2016, the Lazaridis Institute’s Scaling Success: Tackling the Management Gap in Canada’s Technology Sector stressed that the talent shortage is “the primary inhibitor to scaling up.” I could go on.
I liken the situation we find ourselves in to greyhounds chasing the mechanical rabbit. Canada’s universities and governments are constantly trying to keep up with the tech sector’s changing and growing talent needs by adopting new policies, strategies, courses and programs. No matter how fast we run, we always seem to be in catch-up mode.
So far, this approach has not worked badly for Canada or for B.C., as our tech sector has continued to grow in spite of its challenges. The problem is that technology keeps advancing at its own lightning speed, and the competition is always intense. The sector has well-paying jobs it urgently needs to fill, and it will set down lasting roots only in the places that can best fill them.
If Canada cannot get ahead of the sector’s immediate shortage and demonstrate that it has “talent ready and waiting,” the country will risk being left behind in the race to grow the sector’s economic base, keep companies here and attract new ones. We can continue to respond as we have in the past, but we will still be trailing the rabbit.
The better solution is to instead become the rabbit, because it’s always in the lead. In other words: If Canada built a talent pipeline capable of producing a surplus of skilled graduates, then the international tech sector would chase us. Firms would compete against each other to locate here and create jobs here. And Canada’s global tech leadership would never be at risk.
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Training Canadians for these well-paying tech jobs must become an ongoing high priority for governments and universities. Indeed, now may be the time to imagine the creation of a new kind of institution dedicated to this task, one that’s purpose-built not just to respond to industry needs, but to anticipate them and get out in front of them – with industry involvement and collaboration.
Such a university would start by working with industry as an academic partner to better understand the skills needed to succeed in a fast-paced, digital-first economy. It would emphasize a combination of technical, strategic and humanistic skills, so that its steady stream of graduates would arrive in the work force as creative, entrepreneurial and collaborative problem-solvers.
That new kind of university, along with industry, would also create earlier pathways for students to learn about the sector. It would integrate tech leaders and new technologies onto campus, and into classrooms, so that students engage directly with the industry early and often. It would reach out to high schools to give students exposure to the sector before they decide on their course of study. And it would create, evaluate and implement new curriculum faster, with industry as a partner.
Canada has done a commendable job of chasing the rabbit, but it’s a crowded field and success is always fleeting. Now is the time for Canada to become the pacesetter for tech talent, and have international tech players chase us instead.
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