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Vancouver seeks local grads to fuel tech growth

Lorenzo Ignacio, 24, works on code at Invoke Labs in Gastown

Tech firm Invoke has employees from 12 different countries

Alyssa Dunn started building websites in high school before enrolling in UBC’s computer-science program. Now a software-development intern in Gastown, the 21-year-old Vancouver native takes design concepts and brings them to life on the web.

When she graduates next year, she’s counting on the internship experience, known as a “co-op,” to help land her a full-time job in Vancouver – because her computer-science degree alone most likely won’t be enough.

“UBC is great to get a well-rounded education,” Dunn said. “But usually when you’re going into a job, you need to know how to do your job really well. That’s one of the larger problems and why a co-op is a must.”

Vancouver has plenty of high-tech job openings and the city sees itself as an ideal environment for tech firms. But recent graduates often don’t match the needs of the city’s fast-growing employers. Dunn is rare, the kind of graduate Vancouver needs much more of.

“The schools are churning out really good talent,” said Keith Ippel, managing director at Invoke, the tech incubator where Dunn is an intern. “The problem is that companies aren’t hiring just new grads; we need intermediates, seniors, tech leads, and so on. That’s our challenge right now.”

Local universities are putting out a lot of graduates. But they’re not including enough practical work experience into their programs for those  graduating, so that there’s a pool of people who are qualified for more than entry-level jobs.

Recruiters say accomplished and experienced developers are often hunted through LinkedIn. Without a track record, recent graduates face greater hurdles to snag their first job.

Raw vs. polished talent

Local CEOs and hiring managers point to a skills gap: There is plenty of raw talent in Vancouver but not enough polish and real-world know-how.

The ever-increasing popularity of apps for smartphones means companies have a need for experienced developers, particularly those capable of building software for devices like the iPhone and iPad.

When it comes to developer talent, we have brought in people from Europe, all of North America and even Eastern Canada.Tech firms are turning to highly skilled émigrés from Europe, China and Australia with years of coding knowledge. Invoke, an office of 50, boasts employees from 12 different countries.

One of Vancouver’s fastest-growing tech companies is HootSuite, a social-media management firm founded and incubated by Invoke in 2008. The company has tripled this past year, attracting interest from candidates around the globe, according to Ambrosia Humphrey, their VP of human resources.

“When it comes to developer talent, we have brought in people from Europe, all of North America and even Eastern Canada,” Humphrey said. “There are a lot of people who look west and see the possibilities here. And hopefully we have enough carrots to dangle to bring them in.”

HootSuite’s rapid success has helped Vancouver further its growing reputation as a tech hub. Electronic Arts and SAG are well established in the city, and there are dozens of smaller ventures like PlentyofFish, Mobify, and Strutta. The start-up scene is growing, and Vancouver recently announced plans to target more prime real estate for tech companies.

Employers like HootSuite feel their growth needs to include talented local graduates. Universities have helped themselves by making strides to encourage interdisciplinary computer science studies that emphasize both hands-on experience and creative thinking.

Co-op programs help students like Alyssa Dunn gain a foothold in the local job market

Co-op programs help students like Alyssa Dunn gain a foothold in the local job market

One example is the design studios at Simon Fraser University, where students focus on real-world applications rather than just theoretical concepts.

Universities are aware that recruiters look upon work experience favourably. Several of the Vancouver-area schools encourage participation in co-op programs, where students gain internship experience at a firm in lieu of coursework.

“In the contemporary job market employers want entry-level employees to not only come equipped with a university degree but also require them to demonstrate tangible and relevant work experience,” said Thecla Schiphorst, Associate Director of the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University.

Universities make good efforts, but not enough

Yet leaders in the Vancouver tech industry still see room for improvement.

“I think it boils down to the way our education system is structured,” said Alex Chuang, a Program Director at Launch Academy, a Vancouver entrepreneurship incubator.

“It breeds academics and professors but not entrepreneurs. Tech companies and start-ups are looking for developers who are risk takers.”

Competing with Silicon Valley

A university’s commitment to digital technology and innovation is a significant factor in determining the vitality of a region. One reason Silicon Valley stands above its competitors is Stanford. 

The academic powerhouse has produced countless young entrepreneurs who’ve created tech successes. The most recent: the two young founders of Instagram.

The giants of Silicon Valley have started to take notice of Vancouver as a viable tech ecosystem.

On the heels of Microsoft expanding its game studio downtown, Facebook announced last week that it is planning to open a temporary office here in May. The social-media juggernaut plans to hire 150 employees – including many recent graduates – with the aim of training them for future full-time work at the company’s headquarters in California.

“Vancouver was chosen because of its proximity to our Menlo Park, [Calif.], headquarters and existing engineering office in Seattle,” said Facebook in a statement.

“Vancouver is an attractive city for world-class talent to live and work.”

UBC computer-science student Alyssa Dunn agreed that Vancouver is moving in the right direction. She’s confident the marketplace will look different by graduation next year.

“Vancouver has potential,” she said. “In the past couple of months, we’ve seen TEDTalks come here, and we’ve seen Facebook. There’s a solid foundation for start-ups. There’s really a lot of innovative stuff going on right now.”