Vancouver becoming an attractive destination for international tech talent

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Last updated September 30, 2021

When Gaspar Aquilar was looking at MBA programs outside his native Mexico, Vancouver was top on his list. The city’s well-regarded universities, quality of life, vibrant tech scene, and relatively short flight to Mexico City were a winning combination.

“This is a really good place to be,” said Aquilar, who came to Vancouver in 2018 after being accepted to University Canada West’s two-year MBA program. “The life quality that I have right now and the time I can spend with my family here is better than what I had in Mexico.”

It also doesn’t hurt that he lives in a tech hotbed, with Vancouver ranked as the fastest-growing city for tech jobs in North America, expanding at nearly 30 per cent annually and outpacing U.S. powerhouses San Francisco, Seattle, and Austin. Some of that job growth is being powered by Amazon, which established its lone Canadian tech hub in the city a few years ago and intends to add nearly 8,000 high-paying tech jobs to the local economy.

Despite graduating amidst a generational pandemic, Aquilar immediately found work as a consultant for NTT Data Services, a top global IT services provider with more than 50,000 employees. In the three years he’s lived in the city, Aquilar can attest to how fierce the competition is for tech talent.

“The market is so hot,” he said, adding that he knows of many IT teams that are losing talent to competitors. “Many people will move if another company is offering just five per cent more than their current wage. I can see how companies are struggling to get qualified people.”

British Columbia tech boom

According to a recent report by the BC Tech Association, a not-for-profit organization supporting the province’s tech sector, B.C. has more than 10,600 tech companies employing over 106,000 people, and another 50,000 tech workers in non-tech companies. The sector contributes about $30 billion in revenue to B.C.’s economy and accounts for about seven per cent of the province’s GDP ($17 billion), the report found. The average B.C. tech worker contributes 130 per cent in tax revenues compared with the average non-tech worker. In addition, as much as 40 per cent of the commercial real estate in downtown Vancouver is occupied by high-tech businesses and workers, according to the report.

And that report was before Vancouver produced a half dozen tech unicorns—companies with valuations of at least $1 billion—in just the first six months of 2021.

“India had 10 all last year,” said Brock Dykeman, President and Vice-Chancellor of University Canada West (UCW). “Before Vancouver was a bit left behind in that, it was a bit of a Sleepy Hollow, but that has changed and now we’re much more in the center of things in terms of the tech ecology.”

Piggybacking on the city’s fast-growing tech community, Dykeman is trying to remake UCW, a relative newcomer in B.C.’s post-secondary landscape having only existed for 17 years, by building a shiny new glass campus in the heart of Vancouver’s tech community, near the Amazon and Microsoft offices. He spent the pandemic overhauling the university’s MBA program with more work-integrated learning and micro-credential courses geared to the tech community, focusing on hot areas like blockchain technology, database decision making, digital marketing, and e-commerce.

He likens this tech goldrush to the mining boom the city experienced 40 years ago, when B.C.’s mining sector revenues exploded.

“The Vancouver Stock Exchange was heavily dominated by junior mining companies and there was a whole ecosystem around that,” said Dykeman, who sees a similar ecosystem with the city’s tech community, noting how companies benefit from clustering together and sharing resources, knowledge, and talent. “There are big advantages to being where other people are doing similar things. Vancouver has finally hit that spot. We’re finally at that pinnacle where the whole ecosystem is there where you can produce a number of unicorns.”

Looming tech talent shortage

However, growth comes with its own challenges and Vancouver and the rest of the province’s tech companies are beginning to feel the strains of a shortage in talent. The issue was central to the BC Tech Association report, which included the following recommendations to help better scale the white-hot tech sector:

  • Create a BC Transformation Fund of $1 billion over 10 years.
  • Create more relevant tech-degree spaces at post-secondary institutions: B.C.’s post-secondary institutions are graduating fewer engineering and technology-related degrees on a per capita basis versus OECD countries and other Canadian provinces.
  • Increase access to tech jobs, work-integrated learning, and online learning: According to the 2016 BC Tech Talent report, only half of all small tech companies have hired a co-op student. These companies indicated cost as a barrier, particularly in terms of training and developing these co-ops, which often takes away from the productivity of their smaller workforce.

For its part, UCW opened its NExT GENERATION Hub in  2020 to bridge the gap between business and B.C.’s future tech talent.

“We have to start developing these individuals in our communities,” said Dave Keighron, a former ecommerce entrepreneur and the Hub’s director. “We need to start preparing the high schoolers and the next generation for those tech opportunities. Universities and colleges are starting that journey.”

Keighron said there are a ton of MBA programs, but many do not do a good enough job in exposing their students to the specific needs of the business community. He has spent the past three years reaching out to Vancouver business leaders to understand what the main challenges are and tailoring UCW’s program offerings to better reflect that reality.

“We make our case studies relevant to the market,” said Keighron, noting how he doesn’t just follow a standard case-based model of business education, which he added doesn’t really resonate with many small- and medium-sized businesses in terms of the challenges they are facing. “What we need to do as institutions is to come in and start being more in tune with these businesses.”

In addition to work-integrated opportunities, industry workshops and internships, UCW is making sure its faculty is retraining and staying up to date with the latest industry trends and skills so that staff can then apply that knowledge and research to help businesses.

Keighron noted that one of UCW’s strengths is its international students, like Aquilar, who tend to already have more education and work-related experience.

“They already come with a lot of background in different spaces and we need to be able to connect them to the right opportunities by making sure that we align them with the right technology tools — tools that are going to help them be successful.”

Aquilar, who by virtue of his tech background and UCW education had his application to apply for permanent residency fast-tracked through Canada’s fledgling Global Skills Strategy program, has no plans of returning to Mexico. In fact, he’s actively recruiting other tech friends to follow his footsteps.

“We’re really spreading the word,” said Aquilar, who prefers the pace of Vancouver to Mexico City. “It’s a good opportunity for people to be here and enjoy the tranquility and the life that we have.”

Jon Cook

Jon Cook is a senior digital editor and writer with more than 20 years' experience in online news and digital media. He has reported on everything from sports to legal news to Canadian equities for The Globe & Mail, Thomson Reuters, Canoe.com and dozens of other publications.

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