An article by HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes was featured in the Financial Post yesterday. Holmes looks at the challenges face by Canada’s technology industry, namely the lack of developers and software engineers. You can check out the original article here.
This summer, Facebook is cutting the ribbon on a brand new office in downtown Vancouver. The social media giant will employ some 150 staff, mainly recent software engineering grads from the area. According to the company, Vancouver was an ideal choice: close to Facebook offices in Seattle and Silicon Valley and attractive enough to pull in talented new recruits.
For Vancouver tech boosters, this would seem validation: bricks-and-mortar proof that the city is on its way to becoming Silicon Valley North, a new hub of tech innovation north of the border.
Unfortunately, the reality is quite nearly the opposite. Facebook’s new office has a one-year lifespan. It’s a pop-up boot camp for training local software engineers and then shipping them to the U.S. In fact, one year happens to be roughly the time required for a Canadian engineer to secure a permit for full-time work in the states.
Rather than contributing to a homegrown tech scene, in other words, the new office will siphon off the already limited number of qualified professionals in the region. It’s less a success story than a reminder of a chronic problem.
The Canadian Brain Drain
Canada suffers from a desperate and growing shortage of computer developers and software engineers. Over the past several decades, Silicon Valley has claimed our best and brightest. An estimated 350,000 Canadians now live in the the Bay Area — a veritable lost generation lured by good, high-paying tech jobs and access to collaborators and capital.
The consequences are plain to see and getting worse. Right now, only one in 10 organizations in Canada is able to meet critical IT needs in emerging areas like mobile, cloud computing, analytics and social media, according to a new IBM study. By 2016, we’ll be a full 100,000 tech workers short.
The Information and Communications Technology Council, an independent policy advisor for the tech sector, has warned of “serious and pervasive” recruitment challenges in the years ahead. In reality, they’re already here. Over the last four years, I’ve grown HootSuite, a Vancouver-based social media company, from 20 to 300 employees. Finding qualified engineers and programmers has always been a challenge. It’s only getting harder.
Right now, we have approximately 50 developer positions to fill by the end of the year. It takes us at least a month to find the right applicant for one of these posts. At that rate, we’ll still be interviewing candidates for job openings posted today in late 2017. Vancouver may be blessed with great vistas and mild weather, but developers are nowhere to be found. All of which makes growing a high-tech business in the city an exceedingly difficult proposition.
While the new Facebook office offers a vivid example of local talent being poached south of the border, the real problem lies deeper. North America is simply not producing enough computer science grads – not by a long shot. In the U.S. alone, 150,000 computing jobs open up each year, according to the New York Times. But fewer than 40,000 American grads earn bachelor’s degrees in computer science. While official figures are hard to come by, that ratio is likely far worse in Canada.
The dearth of technical talent has led to an international feeding frenzy on qualified developers and software engineers. Silicon Valley is wooing new grads with six-figure salaries. Demand is so high that big tech companies have taken to lobbying for looser immigration rules in order to tap into additional overseas talent. In fact, just this spring an unlikely alliance of Mark Zuckerberg and executives from Google, Yahoo and LinkedIn joined forces as FWD.us to push for comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S.
The Tech Education Crisis
Yet, this doesn’t get at the root of the problem. Importing foreign engineers may offer a temporary fix, but it does little to nurture a homegrown and enduring tech scene. A lasting solution, by contrast, has to start in high schools, colleges and universities. Students need to be exposed to formal computer education early and to understand the kinds of fulfilling career opportunities that tech offers.
Right now, that’s not happening in Canada. Instead, colleges and universities continue to train young people for jobs that simply aren’t in demand. Youth unemployment hovers at an abysmal 14%. Hundreds of thousands of recent university grads are unemployed or underemployed. In a recent year, a full two-thirds of education graduates in Ontario were unable to find full-time work.
Meanwhile, Canadian companies are struggling to fill entry-level engineer and developer positions. In a climate of global recession, well paid tech jobs are sitting vacant. Something is deeply wrong with that picture.
This training gap isn’t just a handicap for Canada’s tech industry. Without workers with the right skills, Canada as a whole can’t remain competitive. “It’s the largest threat to our economy,” says James Knight, president and CEO of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges, in a recent interview. Forecasts indicate that in a decade there will be a staggering 1.5 million jobs unfilled in Canada.
Rekindling a Tech Future in Canada
The news is not all bad, of course. Canada has some of the world’s most respected universities and is home to ambitious tech companies looking to grow on Canadian soil. What we need is a better way to connect eager, talented students with the kinds of jobs that provide stable and rewarding careers. I’m a hacker at heart — confident that enough hustle, ingenuity and late nights can fix almost any problem. There has to be a solution out there for this one.
Reaching high school students with career guidance before they get to university seems a logical first step. Considering where the contemporary economy is headed, it’s time we launched a renewed push in secondary schools toward science and math fields. In particular, students need to see that computer science is relevant, rewarding financially and even fun. This may require getting a little creative. Microsoft engineers in Seattle, for example, recently began teaching high school classes on a volunteer basis, offering instruction to students who might not otherwise have access to computer science courses.
At the university level, we need more connections between industry and academia. The formula has proven highly effective in Silicon Valley itself. At Stanford, executives from Google, Intel, YouTube and other leading companies sit in on classes and serve as mentors for aspiring developers and entrepreneurs. Building bridges with industry creates a critical feedback loop. Students get real-time perspective on what jobs are in demand. They learn the skills needed for contemporary careers. And they cultivate relationships with forward-looking companies for after graduation.
Finally, it’s up to us tech people to do a better job correcting outdated stereotypes of software engineering as tedious, mechanical work. Engineering done right is a highly creative pursuit — one that rewards inventiveness, playfulness and experimentation. Developers and engineers are as much a part of today’s creative class as artists, musicians and writers. Not to mention that tech is sexier and more visible than ever – Smartphones, tablets and social media have brought computing into the limelight. It shouldn’t be hard to sell people on careers that shape one of the most central aspects of our lives.
I’ll admit that I do have a vested interest in all of this. I want to make Vancouver into a real Silicon Valley North. While Facebook will have come and gone in a year’s time, I’m here for the long haul. My colleagues and I want to grow HootSuite into a billion-dollar company right here in Vancouver, then go on to fund a whole new generation of tech ventures in the city. We’ll have the capital and the experience to make a real run at turning Vancouver into a legitimate high-tech center.
But without homegrown talent, it’s never going to happen. High schools and universities need to funnel students into engineering programs now and send the message that the jobs of tomorrow are in tech. If not, Silicon Valley North will remain what it is today: an empty buzzword, little more than a feeder for firms south of the border.
Holmes’ original article can be found on the Financial Post website.