British Columbia has always been known for its lush forests, its rugged coastline and its breathtaking mountains, but over the past two years it is becoming recognized for something else: a growing number of unicorns.
As a recent article in Business In Vancouver noted, the province has become home to more than a dozen privately held tech companies with a valuation of $1 billion or more. Often referred to as tech “unicorns” for their rarity, these companies include Dapper Labs Inc., which creates applications based on blockchain technology, online course creation software maker Thinkific and many others.
The proliferation of financially successful startups is just one indicator of how technology is reshaping the labour market in B.C. — and as a result, opening up new career opportunities for those looking to meet the industry’s burgeoning need for in-demand skills.
Earlier this year, University Canada West published a report that outlined the potential challenges in supplying employers with the workforce they need, describing it as the sector’s biggest constraint.
Titled Fuelling B.C.’s Tech Talent Pipeline: The Role of Universities, the report includes comments from a wide variety of local startups and larger firms about the lack of skilled labour. Its recommendations not only include building the “skills of tomorrow” and partnering closer with industry but exploring solutions for reskilling and upskilling the existing workforce, as well as reimagining how students learn and are assessed.
According to Sheldon Levy, UCW’s president, the ultimate aim of the post-secondary sector and its allies should be to change the narrative so that B.C. is seen as a tech hub by business leaders from around the world. This is no small undertaking, he admitted, and could force some uncomfortable questions about the way educators, government and industry should align on skills development.
“Canada’s really good at small changes. It is not very good at taking risks and big changes,” Levy told CourseCompare. “We see this in everything from our banks to our policies on housing. Everything is incremental. But this work [of developing a talent pipeline] can’t be done on the margins. It’s not like a program that just is added on to the thousand other things. The report will end up gathering dust on a shelf if that’s our attitude.”
Levy said the work he’s talking about means educational institutions like universities and industry must become more accountable to each other, collaborating more directly and moving more quickly as talent needs change.
UCW’s report notes that COVID-19 prompted an influx of corporate-sponsored projects to address business challenges, for example. In the longer-term, Levy said academia, the government and companies all need to be more agile in how they create, evaluate and implement curriculum.
“At one point — maybe in the 50s or the 60s — the country realized that high school education was not enough,” Levy said. “There was an explosion of post-secondary education as the economy was changing. And that order of magnitude of change is what I think is required now.”
BC’s most in-demand tech jobs and skills
Data on the province’s current and projected labour market needs helps prove Levy’s point.
According to WorkBC’s British Columbia Labour Market Outlook: 2021 report, for example, three out of the top five high-priority occupations are based on a technology background. These include:
Levy suggested that there is plenty of variety within each of these occupations, where some employers will face higher competition for talent than others. He gave the example of software engineers and developers of augmented reality (AR) or mixed reality (XR) applications, which are being used in everything from retail environments to education and training within businesses.
“There are a lot of people that don’t believe they have the talents to do that, but they do,” he said. “There’s this stigma or perception that you have to be a ‘high-end programmer.’ And that’s true for about 10 per cent of the jobs I’m talking about, not the other 90 per cent. And that’s what I meant by industry and academia being accountable to each other. What we should be doing is giving those people the necessary microcredentials to pursue those jobs.”
BC’s top tech industries
Every two years the B.C. Tech Association produces the British Columbia Technology Report Card, a survey conducted in partnership with consulting firm KPMG. The most recent edition from 2020 breaks down local employment and growth trends since 2013 and up to 2018 as follows:
All of these markets, however, have been dwarfed by the more general category of “Other computer and related services,” which employs 32,000 and has been expanding at a rate of 46 per cent.
Job-seekers should also be mindful that the plethora of small to medium-sized companies looking for tech skills may look a lot bigger before long: only 22 of B.C.’s roughly 11,000 tech companies have 500 or more employees today.
“There is a huge opportunity for people looking at new careers,” Levy said. “If we created the curriculum in those bite-sized packages and give you hands-on experience while we’re doing it, you will be able to advance. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
B.C.’s fastest-growing companies
The impact of technology is by no means limited to companies that are developing applications and computer hardware. Digital transformation is affecting industries ranging from mining and utilities to retail, construction and more. This means developing tech skills could offer inroads with firms that are constantly growing their bottom line.
Some of the employers thriving in B.C. were compiled in Business In Vancouver’s most recent Top 100 Fastest-Growing Companies List. The five leading companies reflect the diversity of businesses that are thriving across the province, including year-over-year growth between 2016 and 2020 and five-year revenue growth by percentage.
There are similar rankings of B.C.’s fastest-growing companies available through the Globe and Mail and GrowJo. Regardless of whose list they wind up on, though, Levy said these kinds of organizations are showing that the concept of what we call “tech jobs” is evolving.
We have already reached a point, he said, where a certain level of digital or IT skills are becoming a part of roles in every line of business. He pointed to the growth in digital marketing that requires the ability to use sophisticated enterprise applications, or those in finance that are harnessing data analytics tools to gather actionable insights from massive data sets.
“We make a mistake by thinking that everyone must be coders. And that’s 5 per cent of the jobs. The other 95 per cent are doing the things the rest of us do, but with technology transforming it,” he said. “There’s no other country in the world that’s in a better position to build the workforce of the future. So why don’t we do it?”
Shane Schick tells stories that help people innovate and manage the change innovation brings. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing Magazine and B2B News Network. He is also the former Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief) at IT World Canada, a former technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and Yahoo Canada, and was the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca.