Public-private partnership targets tech talent crunch

Centre set to deliver approximately 1,000 new workers to VFX, gaming, animation sector

Diwakar Gandhi, Peter Walsh and Mike Henniger of the Vancouver Centre for Entertainment Arts | Rob Kruyt

Fan reaction to the final season of HBO’s Game of Thrones was seemingly as split as the continent of Westeros during the War of the Five Kings.

But when the Vancouver-based visual effects (VFX) team responsible for some of the fantasy series’ most striking dragon sequences showcased its work at a June panel, all that polarization shattered like a White Walker facing the pointy end of a Valyrian steel blade.

“There were gasps in the audience,” said Mike Henniger, who helped facilitate the event featuring VFX house Image Engine Design Inc.

“A lot of people, they watch the shows like Game of Thrones and things like that and they have no idea the fantastic work … that’s being done right here in Vancouver.”

Henniger, vice-president of marketing and sales at the soon-to-launch Vancouver Centre for Entertainment Arts (VCEA), is among those trying to drum up more interest in the creative technology industry to ease the region’s well-documented talent crunch.

The VCEA is set to accept its first intake of about 100 students this September for a program offering two-year training in VFX, animation or video game development.

Its 38,000-square-foot facility at 565 Great Northern Way in Vancouver is adjacent to the Centre for Digital Media, owned by the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, the Emily Carr University of Art and Design and the BC Institute of Technology.

The program is a public-private partnership offered by Langara College’s continuing studies department, which sees the VCEA licensing a professional curriculum from the private Academy of Art University, San Francisco.

But because the program is being offered through a public post-secondary institution in Vancouver, it can offer international students two-to-three-year graduate work permits (private institutions cannot offer such permits).

Training young workers in the creative technology sectors has been a particularly thorny subject for the industry, according to Peter Walsh, campus director for the Langara Centre for Entertainment Arts, of which the VCEA is a part.

“There’s a huge amount of inefficiency in industry right now because a lot of senior people are spending their time training new hires, and the reason is because they’re coming in not ready to hit the ground running,” he said.

“Students for the whole two years that they’re with us are learning in the same environment and learning from the same professionals that are working in the studios nearby, so when they graduate they’re able to seamlessly enter those studios.”

Walsh added that private institutions have often been more agile with curriculums and better at recruiting faculty than many of the public institutions, adding to some of the industry woes.

“Traditionally, they’ve been hamstrung a little bit because they’ve required strong academic qualifications for their faculty, which doesn’t exist in this industry. Most of the top people … do not have master’s [degrees] and PhDs,” Walsh said.

However, the private institutions have not been as well suited to accommodate international students due to the restrictions on graduate work permits.

A public-private partnership whereby a public institution like Langara can offer a private curriculum that’s already been thoroughly road-tested can address those problems, Walsh said.

The VCEA expects to have three intakes a year, with between 100 and 150 students in each intake.

Walsh estimated that the program will have delivered about 1,000 students to industry within two to three years.

“They’ll be gobbled up,” said Brenda Bailey, executive director of the DigiBC industry group representing the VFX, gaming, animation and augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR) sectors.

She said a public-private partnership is a smart move by Langara that will benefit industry.

“Four-year animation degrees, the students are getting hired out of Year 1 or Year 2, which isn’t good for the universities, probably isn’t good for the students, and what’s happening on industry side is we’re training them when we get them. So all of us are looking for a solution to that,” Bailey said.

And while everyone in the creative technology sector knows there is a severe talent crunch in the province, Bailey said the lack of hard data has made it difficult to address these issues.

“We don’t know how big the problem is, and what’s working and what isn’t,” she said.

DigiBC and the Animation & Visual Effects Alliance of BC struck a new education committee that met in person for the first time in early June.

Part of its mandate is to pursue a new research study examining the talent gap as well as determine ways to boost domestic talent and help young British Columbians learn about job opportunities in the industry.

This comes after a new five-year education program was launched in January under which DigiBC will pursue more outreach in high schools and teaching students about coding by using video games.