When it comes to tech talent it can be hard to know where Ottawa stands
While Ottawa’s tech sector has experienced its share of peaks and valleys, the one recurring theme throughout remains the perpetual need for top talent. Calls for attracting the “best and brightest” persist during both good and bad times. But surely there must be more nuance to such calls for action when every tech region worth their salt would adopt similar strategies. For every brain gain, there has to be a brain drain somewhere. A critical issue for the future of Ottawa’s tech talent strategy must then be an assessment of where we stand in relation to other leading tech hubs.
A critical issue for the future of Ottawa’s tech talent strategy must then be an assessment of where we stand in relation to other leading tech hubs.
An oft quoted statistic that ostensibly puts Ottawa’s tech sector in a very favorable light is the metric of concentration in tech employment. Sometimes referred to as “tech density” — the number of tech employees as a percentage of total urban employment — Ottawa comes in at 11.6% according to CBRE’s 2022 North American Scoring Tech Talent report, placing our city on top of all North American urban regions surveyed, including San Francisco. At first glance, this data point leaves an impression that all is well in the local tech sector. But is it really? An important but overlooked aspect of this data is that CBRE counts tech employment by occupation irrespective of whether that talent works for the tech industry and non-tech sectors, including government.
Based on CBRE’s 2022 numbers, Ottawa’s total tech employment looks impressive indeed: 81,200. Yet, as a few keen observers of Ottawa’s tech sector have pointed out, the CBRE numbers diverge significantly from the tech employment data collected by Statistics Canada. According to StatsCan, Ottawa’s tech industry averaged roughly 46,000 employees between 2016–2020. This discrepancy in tech employment thus yields a very different interpretation of the robustness of Ottawa’s tech sector.
Notwithstanding the inconsistencies of measuring “tech density” another significant metric worth considering is how Ottawa is faring on the net growth of tech jobs relative to other Canadian cities considered as tech hubs. Through this data lens a very different picture then emerges. Even when adopting CBRE’s expansive definition of tech employment, tech talent workforce gains are noticeably more significant in other Canadian urban regions when compared to Ottawa. In terms of net tech job growth, cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver have scored impressive 5-year growth rates (36.5%, 19.3% and 47.9%, respectively) as compared to a 1.5% rate for Ottawa.
Yet a more “telling” statistic is whether Ottawa has been experiencing a brain drain or brain gain relative to other regions. Unfortunately, this type of data is extremely difficult to come by. A potential indicator of brain drain or gain would be a survey of recent STEM grads coming out of our local post-secondary institutions. If this data is actually collected it has not been publicly made available. If new graduates with highly desirable specialized skills are in fact leaving Ottawa for greener tech pastures elsewhere, it would be yet another indicator of the state of the city’s tech sector.
If new graduates with highly desirable specialized skills are in fact leaving Ottawa for greener tech pastures elsewhere, it would be yet another indicator of the state of the city’s tech sector.
But perhaps the most insightful thinking on what it takes for regions to develop effective talent strategies comes from the annual Global Talent Competitiveness Index published by INSEAD. It is surprising that this report receives little if any coverage in Ottawa given that our city fares quite well in the global standings ranking in the top quartile and one of 17 in North America. The authors of the report contend that a region’s talent strategy is multi-dimensional and much more than about “attracting the best and the brightest”. In these uncertain times, it would be well worth the effort by Ottawa’s economic development organizations to equally adopt the relevant benchmarks to better position our region as a top talent contender.