COVID-19 and the ongoing oil downturn have some Calgarians pushing new sectors: including technology.
As a city with an entrepreneurial spirit, numerous company headquarters and a skilled population, Calgary has the resources needed to grow its tech sector and revitalize the city’s damaged economy. Just this week, Indian tech giant Infosys announced plans to create 500 new jobs in the city.
However, tech boosters say Alberta needs to act now to promote that sector, or the province could lose the trained workforce that drove its economy for decades.
Among those pushing for the sector’s advancement is Jeremy Barrett. A member of the City of Calgary Economic Resiliency Task Force, Barrett says Calgary already has a large base of companies that invest in technology.
“We have a disproportionate number of head offices here. We’ve got major multinational companies and, if you were to talk to people in Regina or Saskatoon or Edmonton, even they don’t have the same concentration of companies,” Barrett explains.
This concentration of company headquarters means more funding and investment potential for companies and start-ups.
Another advantage Alberta has is its entrepreneurial attitude. Not always an oil and gas powerhouse, the province learned how to capitalize on its rich natural resources, and could put that same energy into developing clean technologies.
“We had to figure out how to take a substance that is as thick as molasses in Northern Alberta, and develop it into something that can be transported around the world,” says Barrett.
“I think if we can do that, we can figure out how to create new technologies.”
In addition, Alberta has many highly-trained workers in the province. And, according to Margo Purcell, CEO and co-founder of the new tech-focused school InceptionU, the skills they learned in oil and gas can be easily applied to the technology industry.
“If we look at the domain-specific knowledge we have with energy, there’s transferable parts of that. There’s transferable parts with tech as well,” she explains.
These transferable skills have had an impact. According to Invest Alberta, the number of tech companies headquartered in the province grew 33 per cent from 2013 to 2018. However, due to COVID-19 and the uncertainty around the oil and gas industry’s future, Calgary’s downtown core is approaching a 30 per cent vacancy rate.
Indeed, according to David Edmonds – the industry chairman of A100, an organization that aims to strengthen the province’s tech industry – the sector has often “ebbed and flowed in reverse to the energy marketplace.”
Open for business
While he believes the governing United Conservative Party has been listening to his group’s recommendations to diversify the economy, Edmonds stresses that Alberta needs to promote a message that the province “is open for business, and open for all business.”
“What we’re hearing is one story, which is energy, energy, energy,” Edmonds says. “We’re a young, vibrant, growing tech sector. We have open positions.”
Those positions are being undermined by the UCP’s energy-focused approach, which has included cutting tax credits and financial incentives that promote diversification in Alberta.
However, that’s not the only thing holding Alberta’s tech sector back. Due to the focus on oil and gas within postsecondary institutions, there is a lack of talent that deters companies from coming to the province.
“We don’t, quite frankly, produce enough graduates in computer sciences, digital technology [or] computer engineering to attract enough tech companies to, for example, fill the downtown office towers,” Barrett says.
While existing universities in Alberta could promote their own tech-centred programs, Barrett believes that creating a tech-focused institution in Calgary would benefit the industry exponentially. He gives the example of New York City, which did not have a thriving tech industry a decade ago. However, after establishing Cornell Tech, it saw tremendous growth in the sector.
Calgary does have an up-and-coming technology school: InceptionU, which was founded two years ago with a focus on coding and computer sciences. Purcell says InceptionU not only builds talent to help existing companies within Calgary, but also attracts new companies to the city.
“When we look at where things are going, that the world has gone digital and is continuing to go even more digital for all sectors, if the need was great two years ago with the existing tech sector, it’s only going to grow even more,” Purcell says.
Competition for tech jobs
Focusing on growth within the tech sector through messaging, education and financial incentives is important because the tech landscape is extremely competitive.
“Countries, provinces and regions are hungry for this. So it’s important that we have as attractive an offering to help these companies get going as other regions do,” Purcell says.
“When companies can establish anywhere, we need to make sure they know they’ll be supported in lots of ways, including through policy and incentives, to be able to get over some of those humps they’ll encounter at all stages in their development and growth.”
Providing that support is essential because the consequences of not doing so are severe.
Even though Alberta has been a popular destination for post-secondary graduates due to its robust economy, Barrett believes the province cannot count on oil and gas to continue attracting skilled workers. Without investing in new industries like technology, Calgary could lose its workforce.
“What we need to do is to find other industries that can complement our existing ones,” Barrett says. “And then, number one, give our young people a reason to stay or come back, and number two, attract educated people from other places to come here in greater numbers to really build up our economy and get into new areas.”
Edmonds supports Barrett’s position, stating that “you can’t measure” the loss of young people who either move away or do not come back to Alberta due to economic uncertainty. The longer the province waits to invest, the further it falls behind.
According to Edmonds, technology is one of the fastest growing industries globally, and if we do not invest now, we will lose opportunities to other provinces.
“Every single human on the planet will be impacted by some form of technology,” he says.
“We need to be exporters of our intellectual property and the products and services that have come as a fact of our intellectual property that we’ve created.”
Even though the move to diversification and technology is daunting for many Albertans, Purcell is confident that the province can adapt.
“As tough as this is, the one thing that I do see is that we are pretty resilient folks out here. And this is our opportunity to really dig in and create again.”