Skills of the future: Developing a tech labour force in Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan’s economy is diversifying as it embraces technology and innovation with agtech, renewable and zero-emission energy as well as new mining ventures in lithium, hydrogen and helium. But with rapid change comes the growing pains of needing for a workforce skilled in new and emerging technology.

Most reports on the technology sector were released before the pandemic hit, but things are still looking optimistic for the sector. Vendasta is a testament to the potential of tech in the Prairies. The Saskatoon tech company is expected to nearly double its workforce in three years from 350 to 650 people and has filed for public listing on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Many tech companies have either pivoted to new opportunities or are thriving under the current state of the pandemic. Employment in the core tech sector, computer systems design and related services have grown by 62 per cent in February 2021 from its pre-pandemic level in February 2020, according to data from Statistics Canada.

The pandemic put pressure on sectors to digitalize, a process that may have taken five years otherwise, says Aaron Genest, president of SaskTech, adding pressure to the already-present skilled labour demand. With the rise of technology across sectors, companies in the province may be vying for the same skilled workforce.

Filling the labour gap

The Saskatchewan government has an ambitious Growth Plan with goals of having 1.4 million people living in Saskatchewan by 2030, and with it, the creation of 100,000 new jobs and tripling the growth of the tech sector. They want to grow our population both by keeping more young people here and increasing immigration to the province, according to a spokesperson with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Immigration and Career Training (ICT).

There is a globally recognized shortage of talent for computer engineers, computer scientists and software developers. The province is addressing this through the development of training programs for younger technical workers at the high school and post-secondary levels, including the addition of a robotics and coding program elective at the high school level. However, experienced managers are in high demand, according to a labour market and economic impact report on the Saskatchewan technology sector, commissioned by Sask Interactive.

Talent supply issues are indicative of a rapidly growing sector not just of Saskatchewan, but more broadly. Darcy McLane, executive director of SaskInteractive, says the report highlighted that the incentives drawing workers to Saskatchewan’s tech sector are the affordable lifestyle, lower cost of living and community support. Meanwhile, retaining workers presents a challenge with some more experienced talent migrating to bigger centres to advance their careers, as they have more competitive wages and professional development and education opportunities.

What has been effective in addressing the labour gap, Genest believes, has been the work government is doing on immigration. The Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program (SINP) is the most significant source of immigration to the province, accounting for approximately 70 per cent of province’s total annual immigration. It is one of the most effective tools for recruiting talent as it is a quick path to enter Canada, but it is limited because it does not include the stability of permanent residence (PR) status offered through the federal Global Talent Stream.

“One of the things we’d like to see is a merge between the way the Global Talent Stream, which allows for you to get people into the country quickly with work permits, and the way that SINP provides a rapid channel to permanent residence,” Genest says.

“If we could combine those effectively, we would have people in the province ready to work, and they would be attracted here because they would understand that they were going to be able to get their PR very quickly.”

Skills for the future

The province has big plans to position itself as “the best place” for testing, commercializing and scaling new oil and gas technologies, according to the Growth Plan. Nuclear projects are being developed in partnership with Alberta, New Brunswick and Ontario. According to a feasibility report released in March 2021, most small modular reactors (SMR) run on uranium, which may open new markets for Saskatchewan uranium while developing zero-emission nuclear reactors in the province. Capacity-building mechanisms to address the anticipated nuclear skills gaps are being discussed between government and post-secondary institutions under the guidance of the Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation, according to the provincial government.

Erik Nickel, director of operation at the Petroleum Technology Research Centre, believes that Saskatchewan already has much of the expertise required for geothermal energy and mining of lithium, hydrogen and helium. With the foundation of knowledge petroleum geologists already have and the labour-based skill set required for drilling and mining, workers are well positioned with their qualifications and transferable skills for emerging industries. While still being competitive, there is not the same skill gap for the energy sector.

“It’s almost one of those nice problems to have if we had so much work that we ran out of workers,” says Nickel about emerging energy industries. He adds that the oil and gas industry has seen incremental technological changes over the span of years. Innovation has been a positive change, rather than antagonistic as it typically creates more efficient and productive ways to use resources.

Training the up-and-coming labour force for agtech, as well as reskilling the current one, will take some time. The provincial government says it will continue collaborating with post-secondary institutions, industry associations, and tech companies to ensure our students have the digital skills needed to support the growth of the agriculture sector.

In the provincial budget for 2021-22, the government announced an investment of $15 million to $3 million per year over five years for an agtech venture capital fund. While new startups tend to get more of the spotlight, Kyla Link with IntraGrain Technologies, says that they are embracing innovation as a more mature company. They look for individuals with strong technical skills, the people who are curious, innovative, agile and thrive in constantly changing environments.

After having operations across sectors were disrupted by the pandemic, more projects and funding are being announced with a tone of economic recovery. Genest says that we’re seeing part of a technological revolution that started in the 1980s.

“Ag, mining, energy—all of these are being digitized at the same time and at a scale that surpasses anything that’s happened before,” Genest says.

“It’s going to be horribly disruptive no matter what we do … but I think that there are enough people scattered across government, education, industry and there’s enough cooperation amongst all of those in Saskatchewan that I think we’re going to come through pretty well. I think that we see what’s happening and there’s a lot of people working in a positive direction.”

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