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The Forge is a software incubator/free working space. It’s allied with McMaster University and Innovation Factory.

When software developer Andrew Holden first moved to Hamilton a decade ago, software jobs and tech companies were scarce.

But that's changed. "There are 50 software companies and lots of startups offering a chance to do things that are pretty cool," says Mr. Holden, chief technology officer for Weever Apps Inc., a Hamilton-based mobile solutions company.

With startup incubators such as the Innovation Factory and The Forge, McMaster University's startup accelerator, firing up the city's rapidly growing technology industry, tech companies find they are facing a common problem – a shortage of talent.

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For years, Hamilton has been losing skilled people to jobs in Toronto, nearby Waterloo and Calgary, often seeing the top computer science graduates from McMaster head straight to Silicon Valley in the United States.

For new tech companies and entrepreneurs, the challenge is reversing the brain drain, Mr. Holden says, who also recruits for his own firm, which has grown to 16 people today from four in 2013. The shortage is fuelling private and public pressure to bring skilled employees back to work in Hamilton.

"When we attended a mayoral small business forum earlier this year, virtually every tech company said their biggest challenge was recruiting experienced engineers," Mr. Holden says. "We're not the only one with this problem."

Because most Hamilton companies are in an early growth stage, it's hard for them to compete with salaries in Toronto or Waterloo. But smaller companies can appeal to people who want a more flexible and creative environment, so money isn't the only obstacle. The city's industrial reputation for steel mills is another.

"There's a lot of green space despite what people see when they cross the Burlington Skyway," says David Carter, executive director of the Hamilton Innovation Factory. "Hamilton is a great place to start your life, let alone a career. You can buy a house with a yard here for the price of a bachelor apartment in Toronto. The music and restaurant scenes are really taking off as well. It's a very hip town now."

However, because engineers are not often aware of Hamilton's software economy, Mr. Holden explains, they don't necessarily look for jobs in the city.

"The word isn't out there on how great Hamilton is as a city or on all the opportunities we have here," Mr. Holden says. "So we talked with the leading firms about what to do to get the message out. Everyone understands that we're not going to accomplish our individual goals without a lot of mutual support."

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One answer is HamOnt.js JavaScript Conference, a software conference scheduled for Oct. 22 designed to bring local companies to the table along with engineers from outside of the city. Mr. Holden is the key organizer along with Kevin Browne, a software professor at Mohawk College in Hamilton and founder of Software Hamilton, a website for the local tech community.

"The basic reason for the conference is education for software developers from around the region," Mr. Browne says. "It's a chance for developers to see what's going on here. We're really going to be pushing it to Halton region, Toronto, Waterloo and London and hopefully draw in some people who might not have thought of Hamilton as a tech place."

The event has attracted multiple sponsors including local business and Hamilton Economic Development. In addition, many of the speakers have waived their fees, allowing the cost of admission to stay well below what this type of event would normally cost.

"We decided nearly free was the way to go," Mr. Holden says. "It's $10 for students and $20 for professionals. And Mohawk College is actually paying the attendance cost for any student who wants to come."

Other software communities will be looking to see how Hamilton solves its challenges.

Nick Kenyeres, an independent JavaScript engineer in St. Catharines, Ont., co-founded Software Niagara in 2012 after attending a software demo camp in Hamilton. Like Mr. Holden, he found there were a lot of software engineers who weren't aware of other professionals in their area. Software Niagara helps people to network as well as hosting demo camps and bringing in speakers.

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A former recruiter for a Hamilton software company, Mr. Kenyeres says finding skilled engineers isn't quite as difficult in St. Catharines because people living there have to commute further than from Hamilton to take jobs in Toronto. He says the trend toward working remotely means outside companies are competing for local talent but also offers local companies the chance to broaden their own talent field.

"Remote work is what drove me out of the local labour market," Mr. Kenyeres says. "A lot of my colleagues have gone the same route of taking remote jobs, even from other countries, where you just have more flexibility and freedom. The pay is usually better as well from companies in large U.S. cities. Because it's knowledge work, it can be done anywhere. People aren't so tied to working where they live."

His strategy to reverse this trend would be for more companies to offer opportunities to work remotely so they can draw from a much larger talent pool. That way recruiters don't need to find people who are actually living in the local area or are willing to move there.

"You could find somebody who's talented up in North Bay," Mr. Kenyeres says. "What people need to realize is that they're competing for talent not just against companies in other cities, but against other companies around the world."

Still, that solution isn't for every company unless they're designed to support that kind of work, Mr. Kenyeres acknowledges. People who work from home can drift because they're not connected in person.

But strong interpersonal connections within the city seem to be the driving force behind Hamilton's software growth.

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"We have more than just a software community here in Hamilton," Mr. Carter says. "It's very easy to get the city and all the major institutions, such as McMaster University and Mohawk College, involved in a meeting to strategize together. You can't pull together that kind of meeting in a big city like Toronto and get all the key players in a room because it's too big. We're a small city but a big town."

Hamilton tech numbers


Number of software companies in Hamilton now, up from about five 10 years ago.


Percentage of software firms surveyed in Hamilton who agree it is challenging to hire senior software developers and advanced engineers.

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People expected to attend an Oct. 22 conference designed to bring local companies together with engineers from outside of the city.

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