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Tech Support: Skilled Labour in Demand in Saskatchewan

Aaron Genest - Photo by Danger Dynamite
Aaron Genest - Photo by Danger Dynamite

When people think about business in Saskatchewan, they think agriculture, mining and energy. These industries play a vital role in our economy but are susceptible to volatility due to fluctuating commodity prices, trade wars and tariffs. These swings between prosperity and hardship are part of a resource-based economy. However, there are people in Saskatchewan working to add another economic engine to Saskatchewan—one less reliant on outside forces and complementary to our existing industries.

Technology finds a home in Saskatchewan.

That engine is technology, and leading the way is SaskTech. SaskTech is an association of tech sector businesses looking for a unified voice to strengthen their industry. As the president of SaskTech, Aaron Genest has been busy since the group was formed two years ago and officially founded last year. “Government came to the industry and asked for a common voice…they liked that it (tech) wasn’t linked to the boom-bust cycle of the resource industry and were hoping tech could be another pillar,” says Genest.

SaskTech—with a membership of recognizable industry names like 7shifts, Vendasta, Zu, Coconut Software and GasBuddy, and several up-and-coming names such as MyComply, Ora, Carma and Sherpa—set out to help lead the technology industry into a sustainable period of growth. With such a wide variety of companies, it was tough to find a single focus that could drive the industry forward. “The only thing we actually agreed on was that labour was the primary choke point,” says Genest. SaskTech recognized that there were a lot of opportunities being missed because businesses simply didn’t have the people to do the work. They have set out to fix that.

Immigration and education can be solutions.

“We addressed the immediate need through immigration—or at least migration—into Saskatchewan from elsewhere. The government supported this through ThinkSask.ca and the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program. This is a short-term solution to try and fill the immediate need for ‘medium- experienced’ people. We’re a pretty young industry here and there’s not enough people with that level of experience,” says Genest.

For a medium-term solution, SaskTech wanted to look internally to ensure a steady stream of quality workers. They looked to grow via the provincial education system by trying to tweak existing programs within existing budgets. The results have been positive so far. “There are four new faculty positions at the University of Regina and four new positions in the University of Saskatchewan in tech,” says Genest. The education sector has realized the need to shift technology to the forefront and help ensure students are employable upon graduation.

However, that won’t be enough.  “We need more students interested in tech coming out of high school, says Genest. SaskTech has been working with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Education to develop a robotics and coding program in the practical and applied arts. In addition to industrial arts and cooking, students will be able to take robotics as an option. “That’s a very positive step forward and happened very quickly for the Ministry of Education,” says Genest.

What else can be done to fill the labour shortage? Inclusivity. SaskTech works whenever they can to put female engineers and computer scientists in front of students. “The challenge is to find women in tech, who are vastly underrepresented in this field. In fact, if we had representative numbers of women and representative numbers of First Nations and Métis in Saskatchewan in our technology programs we wouldn’t have a labour problem—that’s how big a deal it is,” explains Genest.

Investment is required for growth.

Investing in a vibrant, growing ecosystem, where people can move back and forth relatively freely and is attractive to outsiders is an initiative for SaskTech. Saskatchewan was one of the last provinces to offer a tax incentive to investors putting money into technology. With a new tax incentive, investors are encouraged to put money into Saskatchewan they may have placed elsewhere.

“We haven’t been asking for government money from Saskatchewan. We’d prefer to look for targeted places where existing programs can be tweaked and managed. A small exception would be working with Innovation Saskatchewan to develop the Saskatchewan Technology Startup Incentive (STSI). We worked to help align that. It was quite important to us,” says Genest.

“One of the things that will help a great deal is a lively ecosystem. When we try and attract people… we’re talking to people who live in Vienna, Munich or Silicon Valley and when they hear about Saskatoon or Regina they think we (Mentor Graphics, Genest’s employer) might be the only company there. We want to be able to point to a hundred other companies they could move to if they come in and it doesn’t work out with us,” says Genest. “So that investment tax credit is a very big deal in that sense.”

Let’s grow the industry together.

“We’re a small piece of the economy relative to mining. We’re growing very rapidly. We’re on a hockey stick right now and we want to sustain that as long as possible to make the tech industry a viable part of the economy but there’s no sense in asking for investments that are out of scale,” he says.

That ecosystem Genest talks about is growing. A large community has developed over the last two years in Saskatchewan.

It’s not just SaskTech, either. “We’ve seen Economic Development Regina step in and form a technology working group. We’ve seen the Conexus Cultivator and Innovation Saskatchewan Co.Labs developing strong communities,” says Genest. “SaskInteractive is growing their membership companies significantly and they’re doing a very good job of connecting those companies to each other and within the tech community.” Innovation Saskatchewan—true to their name— is innovative in how they approach supporting tech in the province.

It doesn’t hurt that there has been a surge in technology investment. “The sudden shift in venture capital investment and the connections being made are really great,” says Genest.

“We have many advantages. We’ve got a great province, a great community, a rapidly growing sector. Attractive cities, fantastic work places. But the labour shortage is really, really, awful. It is striking that across 17 companies, we can fill 220 jobs and still have 76 open.”

For a company like Mentor Graphics with a dedicated HR department it can take months to fill a skilled tech position and the minute one is filled, they open a new one. “And even worse,” says Genest, “Is the small companies, the start-ups looking for their first or second person. They’re relying on that to fuel their core innovation and to get the company off the ground and if they must wait four months to find that person it’s really stifling.”

Talent and investment exist here in Saskatchewan. Now it’s time to bring it together, cultivate it and let it grow. “It behooves us all to find good solutions to this. It’s better for everybody in the province,” says Genest.