‘Capital follows talent’: Why Amazon is banking on Vancouver labour force

Newly launched Invest Vancouver partnering on skills development program with Amazon Web Services

Amazon will maintain a workforce in the the old Canada Post building redevelopment in downtown Vancouver, expected to be complete in 2023 | submitted

Had the pandemic not upended the global economy, Shopify Inc. (TSX:SHOP) workers at a 70,000-square-foot downtown Vancouver office tower might have been prepping for a one-year anniversary party this fall. 

Instead, the rapid shift to remote work saw the Canadian e-commerce company quickly walk back plans last year for a 1,000-person tech hub at Four Bentall Centre on Dunsmuir Street, with Shopify explaining it would instead become a “digital by default” company. 

Amazon Web Services (AWS), the cloud-computing subsidiary of Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq:AMZN), has taken a different approach towards Vancouver — one that a new regional economic development organization is seizing on.

Rather than scaling back on its 2018 plans to add 3,000 workers to the city, Amazon announced almost exactly a year ago it would add another 3,000 tech workers to the team. That was followed this past summer when AWS revealed it would hire another 1,800 Canadian workers to be split between Vancouver and Toronto.

“There's a great value proposition in the region in terms of our talent, in terms of the environment that we have, in terms of the ways in which we really are building out as it relates to tech,” said Jacquie Griffiths, executive vice-president of Invest Vancouver.

Her economic development organization, backed by the Metro Vancouver Regional District and formerly known as the Regional Economic Prosperity Service, rebranded earlier this week and announced plans to partner with AWS on a talent development program it said would prep “thousands” of workers in the region for tech jobs.

"My team looks forward to working hand-in-hand with Invest Vancouver, secondary and post-secondary institutions, industry and non-profits to address the gap in cloud education and provide targeted education opportunities," Coral Kennett, head of educational programs for AWS Canada, said in a statement.

Griffiths said the program will be deployed incrementally, with schools such as the B.C. Institute of Technology already on board to help develop skills that match demands within the labour market. It won’t be aimed at jobs solely at AWS but for other cloud-computing firms, as well as for developing expertise in artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and data analytics.

This local initiative, which Griffiths said she believes is unique to Canada, is based on an AWS program currently running at 100 community colleges in California.

The program is about “ultimately making sure that the skills that are being built out across our workforce match new investment that will be coming into the region as well, because what we know is that capital follows talent,” Griffiths said.

“And so we really want to make sure that we are positioned best globally to compete for that capital in this fast-transitioning economy.”

Last month, economists at RBC described B.C.’s labour market as the “tightest” in Canada.

And the high demand for tech talent has seen companies making significant promises to workers in a bid to attract and retain them.

Homegrown tech firms like Traction on Demand (Traction Sales and Marketing Inc.) have been launching satellite offices in more bucolic locations where the cost of living is lower, while foreign VFX firms such as DNEG (Double Negative Ltd.) and Zoic Studios have been promising employees the option to work from home if they choose to do so.

“What we're starting to see in areas like tech is just really remarkable clustering as we build out on the green economy, on life sciences, in other areas, and I think that very much aligns with the good work that AWS at Amazon is doing as well,” Griffiths said.

torton@biv.com

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Listen below to an extended conversation with Invest Vancouver executive vice-president Jacquie Griffiths.