How to keep Ottawa graduates in the capital

Mark Brownlee
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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.

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.


Early influence

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 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 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.”

Canadian comparisons

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)

Organizations: Algonquin College, University of Ottawa, Carleton University IBM Ottawa Network for Education University of Calgary

Geographic location: Ottawa, National Capital Region, La Cité Alberta Edmonton Montreal Manitoba Winnipeg Victoria

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Recent comments

  • Crankenstein
    November 05, 2014 - 18:24

    Apart from IT related dreck, there is very little in the way of engineering development going on in Ottawa anymore.

  • Jim Beam
    July 13, 2013 - 18:16

    If you want to hear the reasons without censorship.. here you go... I'm warning you this is the uncensored truth and a lot of politically correct people would call me names for saying this but this is it... don't read if you can't handle the truth! Ottawa can't keep its engineers. Plain and simple. The brain drain has never been about doctors or anyone else. In fact stats can shows next to no doctors leaving and some years we had a net gain. Back to engineering.... engineers are currently one of the lowest paid professions on an hourly scale, even salary. Salaries may appear reasonable but they are about the same as Electricians and lower than teachers. If you convert engineering salary to hourly pay and account for all the unpaid overtime engineers do ... you get about 30$ an hour. Teachers on the other hand make over 50$ an hour. Saldy, 30$ / hour for an engineer developing new products and keeping up with technology that changes every six months, courses, Masters and PhD's (masters is the rule, not the except nowadays.. if you don't have it good luck). Long story short... the very second an engineer graduates he/she is looking to leave for the west. Some do co-op in Ottawa get a lowly offer and stay 1-2 years to build up some experience all while looking for jobs out west. Ottawa can't do anything about this because it just doesn't pay and taxes in Canada are high (income + HST is high compared to state income and sales taxes in the US). Homes are also priced high compared to a large number of states. Overall, an lowly engineering hourly pay in Ottawa doesn't go far for the hours worked and the vacation and lack of benefits and pensions don't cut it. Most engineers are extremely smart and put in the extra effort constantly that you don't see in other professions due to entitlement. We can already see how the talent in Ottawa has disappeared and will not return. If Ottawa wants to be competitive it must stop being so social and start rewarding hard work, risk and pay for that. The police, firefighters in Ottawa just got a beefy 3% (retro active to 2011) raise on their already beefy salaries of over 110k on average. No wonder a lowly engineering making less than some trades will get up and go out west at the first chance he/she gets. Finally a major point is: FAARRR TOOO MANY GRADUATES IN OTTAWA AND NO JOBS TO SUPPORT THEM! (Foreign students come here and get a work visa almost immediately so Canadian students have zero chance as the competition supported by our liberal (not the party) government is too high and immigrants are willing to work for cheap just to work to get a visa.)

  • Liz
    January 22, 2013 - 15:27

    If your son took environmental engineering he should go out west (go and visit - don't use the internet) to look for a job. Most of the companies in Ottawa are only interested in people that live and breathe software/IT.

  • Terry
    January 22, 2013 - 10:34

    Has your son applied to work out west in either the oil patch or potash mines? Sounds like they may have a need for his skills.

  • Syed Rizvi
    January 21, 2013 - 08:50

    I am a concerned father as my son recently graduated from Carleton University in Environmental Engineering and for the past six months he has been applying to hundreds of companies on advertised positions but did not get even a single interview call though he was one of the top students. As he was completing his studies I was expecting that he will be easily absorbed by Environment Canada due to his major in studies, experience during a summer job and projects he completed during his studies but unfortunately Environment Canada is not accepting any new Graduates as yet. I hope this situation gets better sooner than later. A concerned father