Tech firms need the talent coming out of local colleges and universities, businesses say
Getting involved with local schools is a priority for Fred Boulanger’s Gatineau-based software company.
© File photo
Macadamian CEO Fred Boulanger.
Macadamian is on post-secondary campuses constantly, telling soon-to-be-graduates what the development company does and the major challenges it faces. The firm also runs co-op programs and organizes activities – including a “hackathon” that challenges students to design a mobile app in 24 hours – to identify potential candidates it wants to hire.
Mr. Boulanger said the company is fortunate to be based in the National Capital Region, since there’s such a large pool of talent from which to draw. But, he said companies can’t wait until students leave school and enter the job market.
“You have to start talking to them before they graduate,” said Mr. Boulanger, the firm’s CEO and co-founder.
However, others feel businesses in the city can do more to keep university and college students in Ottawa after they graduate.
The city’s lead economic development agency, Invest Ottawa, said it is tackling the problem. The organization’s president and CEO, Bruce Lazenby, said he wants to link 1,000 students with 500 local businesses over the next year.
He adds he plans to assemble a task force to research the issue and “give (students) a reason to consider Ottawa their future home, not just their current home.”
The relationship between students and companies is reciprocal, said Mr. Boulanger. Talented students only want to join companies that are successful, but companies can only be successful if they recruit talented students.
The best way to get students to stay in Ottawa is to connect them with businesses before they graduate, said Mark Hoddenbagh of Algonquin College’s applied research and innovation program.
Algonquin does this by bringing in local businesses that need help developing their products and then linking those companies with students.
Mr. Hoddenbagh pointed to the example of Impakt Protective, a local company selling a sensor that goes in the helmets of those playing sports such as hockey or football to alert coaches when a player may have suffered a concussion.
Algonquin students worked on the project, some of whom the firm subsequently hired.
“If you want to keep building that community up – whether it’s high tech, manufacturing, health care, whatever – you need to have people who are qualified to work there, people who understand the issues and needs that are in that particular sector,” Mr. Hoddenbagh said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Lazenby said he has discussed his proposed initiative with the heads of Algonquin College, Carleton University, the University of Ottawa and La Cité collégiale – all of whom sit on Invest Ottawa’s board – and that they want to work together on the issue.
However, even the discussions appear to be in the preliminary stages. Spokespeople for Algonquin and the University of Ottawa did not know about any formal talks between the schools and Invest Ottawa.
Many companies try to recruit students when they are in university, but others feel the process needs to start much sooner.
In 2007, Macadamian’s Mr. Boulanger, along with IBM’s Marcellus Mindel and Kelly Daize of OCRI (now Invest Ottawa), jointly launched a project now known as TechU.me that’s currently run by the Ottawa Network for Education. It’s designed to get elementary and high school students interested in technology through initiatives that include mentorship programs and app-writing assignments.
Students must be reached at younger ages so they can pick appropriate courses that allow them to pursue a degree in math, science or engineering, according to TechU.me program director Steve Evraire.
“If we don’t show kids by the time they get to Grade 9 and 10, if they don’t understand and see some possibilities, they’re not just going to turn it on by the time they get into Grade 12 and say, ‘You know what? I might want to be a computer programmer,” he said.
“It starts at the elementary grades, really.”
The evidence suggests that students who are directly connected with companies while at university or college tend to be more likely to stick around in the area.
More than four out of every five graduates of Algonquin College – which has a large number of co-op programs – live in the Ottawa area, according to the school. That’s a far higher ratio than the University of Ottawa and Carleton University, both of which are at slightly more than 50 per cent.
While there are many personal and economic factors that influence where recent graduates choose to live, Ottawa appears to be on par with several other Canadian universities.
University of Calgary: 65 per cent
Carleton University: 55 per cent
University of Alberta (Edmonton): 55 per cent
University of Ottawa: 54 per cent
McGill University (Montreal): 48 per cent
University of Manitoba (Winnipeg): 49 per cent
University of Victoria: 48 per cent
University of Waterloo: 19 per cent
Algonquin College: 82 per cent
(Sources: University spokespeople/alumni associations)