Future of Work

Hacking Canada’s tech talent gap

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This article is the first of a two-part series on what Canadian policymakers and companies are doing to attract global tech talent to Canada.

Working as full-stack developer for IBM in Brasília, Sayuri Mizuguchi would regularly browse Canada travel videos on YouTube, dreaming she would one day move to Toronto, or Calgary or Montreal to build a career and life with more opportunity than she saw for herself in Brazil.

During one of her regular web searches a few months ago, she came across a program offering female tech developers flights to Canada and interviews with potential employers when they arrived. “I submitted my application right away,” she says.

Mizuguchi was among 1,310 women from across the world who applied and one of 20 who flew to Toronto last week to participate in Leap, a program run by Vancouver-based VanHack, a startup that connects global tech talent with Canadian employers.

While Canada is known for its world-class tech talent, the number of job openings in the space is fast outpacing the pool of skilled workers available to fill them. The demand has given rise to industry panels, immigration reforms and whole companies dedicated to filling the tech talent gap.

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A new pilot immigration program has helped Ilya Brotzky, the Soviet-born founder and CEO of VanHack, grow his company. In June 2017, the federal government introduced the Global Talent Stream, a fast-track work-permit and visa program that growing companies could use to bring in highly-skilled workers for key, in-demand jobs.

A July report from CBRE identified Toronto as the fastest-growing tech market in North America, with the city adding 28,900 tech jobs in 2017—up 13.6 per cent from the previous year. According to the report, since 2011, the number of new jobs in Canada’s top tech markets—Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver—has outnumbered new tech graduates by 65,252.

The Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) predicts that, given the rate of growth in the space, Canada will need another 182,000 skilled tech workers by next year to fill the chasm. In its 2016 report, ICTC stated that “the domestic supply of ICT graduates and workers will be insufficient to meet this demand.”

Talking Points

The number of new jobs created in Canada’s top tech markets—Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver—has exceeded the number of new tech graduates by 65,252 since 2011. To close the gap, Vancouver-based VanHack is recruiting talent from abroad to work for Canadian firms. Last week, the company flew 20 female developers to Canada to interview with local companies; 13 of them have landed jobs so far.

After working in tech sales in Brazil from 2010 to 2014, Brotzky opened an English school for non-English-speaking developers to give them skills that would help them land remote work with Canadian and U.S. companies. “It started out with me teaching them how to pronounce different tech words and phrases like ‘Ruby on Rails’ or ‘back-end’ and ‘front-end’ or ‘database,’ and how to present themselves in interviews,” he says.

Brotzky says his colleagues and clients in Brazil kept asking him about Canada; what it was like to work and live there. Under the old immigration system, however, bringing skilled workers to Canada from abroad was an onerous process, so he chose not to wade into the foreign recruiting business at the start.

It wasn’t until 2017, when the federal government introduced the Global Talent Stream, that VanHack began prioritizing recruiting talent to Canada. The company has since brought some 400 foreign tech workers to the country, 150 of whom Brotzky says came in through the Global Talent Stream. While the company recruits for employers outside the country, too, Brotszky says it focused its efforts back home over the last year after the visa program was introduced, and about 80 per cent of its placements happen here. “As we open up the doors, we’ve done a lot more hires in Canada,” he says.

Leap itself grew out of a need to move even faster, says Brotzky, by getting multiple candidates in front of several potential employers over the course of a few days.

In May, the first Leap cohort in Canada saw seven developers hired out of the 20 who participated. All the qualifying candidates were male, however, and Brotzky realized that men far outnumbered women among the recruits VanHack was bringing to Canada. While the company was addressing one employment challenge, the tech talent gap, he worried it was neglecting the wide gender gap that exists in the industry. The next cohort, he decided, would be all women.

Of the 20 developers who visited the Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo region for the all-women Leap program last week, 13 have been hired, and a total of 23 offers were made. Last month, VanHack ran another Leap event in Calgary, through which eight of 10 female candidates landed jobs in the city.

“Canadian tech talent is some of the best in the world, but the competition for our local talent is only growing fiercer,” says Jenna Hay, head of policy development at Lending Loop, a peer-to-peer lending platform that connects financial lenders with small businesses seeking capital. The startup has grown from 15 to 39 employees in the last year, and finding skilled workers locally remains a challenge. “That’s where we see a really interesting opportunity in terms of accessing global talent with programs like VanHack,” says Hay.

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Lending Loop has hired three full-time employees through the Global Talent Stream to date, and the company was among employers—including Ritual, Coinsquare, League, Home Hardware and the Government of Ontario—who met with Leap candidates last week.

While Lending Loop has had success on its own in the past, Hay says it was particularly interested in the latest Leap cohort because of the event’s focus on women developers. “We serve Canadian small businesses across the country, and the diversity reflected in those businesses—businesses that are female-led or led by racialized minorities—we can serve them better if we have a diverse perspective,” says Hay. Lending Loop met with eight Leap candidates while they were in Toronto and is in the process of hiring one of them.

“We’re going to be doing a lot more of these,” Brotzky says, referring to Leap. “This has been a proof-of-concept and soon we want it to be an ongoing thing, where every month or so there’s a Leap event in every tech market in Canada—places like Calgary, places like Halifax, Kelowna [, B.C.].” While there are plenty of jobs in Toronto, “our recruits are a really great fit for up-and-coming tech markets where it’s hard to find good talent.

Mizuguchi, meanwhile, is packing up her life in Brazil to move to Toronto, where she was offered a job with Rangle.io, a digital consultancy firm that designs and builds apps for major brands. “I just had a meeting with my manager to say I am leaving,” she says over the phone from Brazil. “It was hard, but they all seem happy for me—they say, ‘We know you’re going to be successful.’”

Coming next week: Murad Hemmadi unpacks the federal government’s Global Skills Strategy, looking at where skilled talent is coming to Canada from, and what it means for the companies they join.