Firms look abroad to cope with tech talent crunch

Boutique firms getting creative in solving labour gap issues

Rob Nikkel, CEO of Intranet Connections, said he sells Vancouver as much as his business to potential foreign workers | Photo: Rob Kruyt

Since Rob Nikkel took over the top job at North Vancouver’s Intranet Connections, the company has doubled in size.

He now oversees 32 employees from a variety of countries including Brazil, Colombia, Spain and Israel. The company, which sells internal communications software, has had to get creative to turn resumes into workers.

B.C.’s tech sector, which employs close to 93,000 people, is growing rapidly, but still lags behind other provinces such as Alberta and Ontario in graduation rates. Many industry insiders say the federal government needs to loosen requirements for tech workers to move to Canada, and that trade deals like North American Free Trade Agreement need to be updated to open the gates. Nikkel said one of the ways to attract international workers is to promote Vancouver as much as the company and the potential job.

“We’ve had to look at various international programs and different ways of accessing talent, and they had to be enticed here for the quality of life and the type of culture and environment that we can provide them,” Nikkel said. “Salaries have increased quite a bit, about 6% in the last couple of years in technology alone.”

Intranet Connections has been operating for close to 20 years and has a client base of more than 600 companies, including NASA, the Mayo Clinic, the Chicago White Sox, Unicef, Nintendo and the U.S. Marines.

Nikkel, who has worked for the company since 2011 when he joined as a lead developer, said competing on a compensation level is out of the question, as larger companies can simply write blank cheques to employees they want. But smaller firms like his can offer a distinct corporate culture that a giant like Amazon (Nasdaq:AMZN) or Google (Nasdaq:GOOG) might not be able to dangle.

“We’re offering for them to be part of a small family and that personal connection – and individualized approaches to professional development benefits,” he said. “So many people try to compete off perks, but it’s really more about flexibility.”

Leah Baker, marketing and communications coordinator for Small Business BC, said this is the modus operandi for the little fish in the big tech pond.

“The reality is that smaller tech companies often only survive because they aren’t in direct competition with big tech,” she said. “They’re running in two separate circles, as big tech will always have more resources than small tech.”

Dogu Taskiran, CEO of Stambol Studios, which offers virtual reality and augmented reality services to the real estate industry, said letting vendors stay in their home country has allowed him to pluck workers from abroad on a contract basis. Taskiran, who started the company in 2016, said it has a lot of Skype sessions with contractors who work abroad.

“Right now we have specialized vendors that we work with from Moscow, Turkey, Singapore and Australia,” he said. “So it’s full time for them but more like a billing scenario rather than having them on the actual payroll.”

According to international data firm Strategy Analytics, there will be 1.87 billion mobile workers by 2022, accounting for 42.5% of the total global workforce. The study also finds that the trend of mobile working and telecommuting is directly tied to the rise of millennials – those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s –  and the wave of retirements among baby boomers.

Dylan Hrycyshen, business planning advisor for Small Business BC, said the small tech companies can succeed if they find their niche.

Smaller firms “are generally focused on providing value in a part of the ecosystem that isn’t getting enough attention,” he said.

“The problem they are tackling exists, and therefore there is an opportunity for them to provide a unique solution that larger tech companies are not. When a small tech business can provide value to a community of loyal users or followers or adopters, it becomes difficult for a larger company to replicate what they’re doing.”