Calgary comes calling for Vancouver tech talent

City’s efforts to diversify its economy creating more competition for B.C. workers

Calgary has ramped up efforts to recruit Vancouver technology workers | TRphotos/Shutterstock

Call it a double reverse, of sorts.

Growing up in Calgary, Jessica Pumilia contemplated following her father into the oil and gas sector until the 2014 global oil shock sent energy prices into free fall, leaving him without a job.

“It’s definitely turned me off because of the [instability] and because these companies could easily move from Alberta and go back to the States,” said the third-year student at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia (UBC), who also saw friends’ parents lose their jobs in the wake of Alberta’s economic downtown.

Despite Pumilia’s desire to live and work on the West Coast, a return to Calgary to be part of the city’s nascent startup ecosystem is now on the table.

“House prices are just insane. It’s not feasible for me at the moment to live here,” said the 20-year-old, who is studying business technology management and marketing.

Her sister graduated from UBC recently but left Vancouver to work in the U.K.

And Calgary’s tech sector is courting people like Pumilia as it makes an increasingly aggressive push to recruit Vancouver tech workers.

Calgary Economic Development (CED), a city-funded not-for-profit corporation, facilitated its second recruitment event in downtown Vancouver on October 25.

There, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and tech companies from his city pitched Vancouver’s tech workers on making a move across the Rockies.

“One of the reasons these companies are in a struggle for talent here in Vancouver is that it’s expensive to live here and it’s hard for people to choose to move here,” Nenshi told Business in Vancouver.

“And so as a result: set up a branch office in Calgary, set up a second headquarters and make sure the great growth of your company is sustainable because you can attract without having to fight in an increasingly difficult war for talent.”

He pointed out that Silicon Valley is having difficulties retaining talent due to high cost-of-living expenses that are in turn leading to unsustainable wage inflation.

If an average worker can barely scrape by, Nenshi said, then they’ll be quick to take a job at a rival company that pays even a little bit more. He said this is accentuating retainment problems in the tech ecosytem.

“What we’re seeing a lot of smart Silicon Valley companies do, and I think a lot of smart Vancouver companies will do the same, is say, ‘You know what? Rather than embroil ourselves in that fight, let’s look at expansion where talent is plentiful.’ And I think Calgary should be at the top of that list.”

Meanwhile, Calgary city council has also been putting money into the game, launching a $100 million fund last spring to stimulate local businesses.

CED, the fund’s administrator, named tech company MobSquad as the first recipient in early October.

The closest comparison might be the $100 million B.C. Tech Fund, a fund of funds launched by the previous BC Liberal government and managed by Toronto’s Kensington Capital Partners.

However, that fund is geared specifically towards tech start-ups across the entire province as opposed to businesses in one specific city.

Alberta’s efforts to diversify have raised alarm bells for Digi-BC, an industry association representing the interests of the province’s video game and visual effects sector. The Alberta government announced in March the creation of a new 25% incentive, the Alberta interactive digital media tax credit, aimed at spurring growth in the province’s gaming sector.

Since then, DigiBC has been calling on the B.C. government to boost its interactive digital media tax credit, which currently tops out at 17.5% – the lowest among all jurisdictions in the country.

“We’re really worried about this threat in Alberta,” DigiBC executive director Brenda Bailey told Business in Vancouver last month.

She added that competition between the sectors is being heightened further by the cost of housing in Vancouver.

“There is a large effort underway to make Calgary much more than just an oil and gas town,” said Brad Simpson, director of growth at ATTAbotics Inc.

“We’ve always talked about diversifying our economy, we’ve always talked about trying not to be a one-trick pony, we’ve always talked about not being tied to the cyclical booms of oil and gas. But I think the last shock has resonated a lot more than has been typical.”

His robotics company specializes in automated storage and retrieval systems, or, as Simspon describes it, “robots moving stuff around in a warehouse.”

The Calgary-based startup is undergoing rapid growth that requires a large boost in employee numbers, which is why representatives descended on Vancouver for the recruitment event.

“Any time there’s limited talent pool, there will be a competition inherent for resources,” Simpson said, adding he hopes that any success achieved in one tech ecosystem will help others across Canada.

Plankk CEO Colin Szopa, who made the trip from Calgary to Vancouver for the recruitment event, is hopeful the tech ecosystems can be complementary rather than competitive.

“Look at what San Francisco and L.A. have been able to do with people going back and forth, and different ecosystems … created between [the cities] – although geographically separated – are still mutually beneficial,” he said.

One startup recruiting talent for its Calgary office is Vancouver-based Clio, whose founder, Jack Newton, studied computer science at the University of Alberta.

“We work in collaboration with many companies in Vancouver, so when there is that cheaper option to live in a city that’s an hour away and perhaps do a lot of remote work, it’s a more affordable option for companies,” said Jeanette Sutherland, CED’s manager of workforce and productivity.

CED visited Toronto to facilitate a recruitment event earlier this year, and Sutherland said her organization has been promoting the federal government’s Global Talent Stream program, which launched in June 2017 to better facilitate recruitment for skilled foreign workers.

“Many [Calgarians] may have left with the downturn in the oil and gas sector but … Calgary has embraced tech and digital growth in our city,” she said. “We really welcome these Calgarians back to our city. Though energy will always be a driver, it’s not everything we’re basing our economic growth on anymore.”