Opinion: Commentary: Ottawa's got talent, but where are the jobs?

On a particularly chilly evening recently, a young man came to my door trying to sell me new TV and Internet services. I was not interested in changing service providers, but I invited him in for a drink of water and a chance to warm up. 

It turned out the young man was a recent MBA graduate from a local university. He said he was having a hard time finding work and took the sales job to pay the bills, adding he was pursuing a promising opportunity and hoped to have a job in his field by the summer. 

His situation is hardly unique. Although Ottawa’s official unemployment rate is a relatively healthy 5.7 per cent, job prospects for many recent graduates and people seeking work in their field of choice aren’t exactly robust. 

I recently spoke with the head of one of Ottawa’s leading talent search firms, who confirmed that the city remains a tough market for job hunters. I believe the region is in the midst of a structural shift in its economy. As a result, Ottawa’s job market is changing, leaving many people struggling to find career opportunities that match their skills and experience.

Over the past decade, Ottawa has seen the sale or collapse of several notable anchor technology companies, including Nortel, Newbridge, JDSU, and Cognos, that were either headquartered in the region or had multiple functions based here such as human resources, marketing and sales. As those companies disappeared or were sold, many of those head office functions were eliminated or transferred elsewhere. 

The downside is that leaves fewer jobs in support functions such as communications and human resources in addition to fewer entry-level positions; as well, hiring and expansion decisions are now made elsewhere. 

For example, one large company that had most of its executive team in Ottawa was bought by a major U.S. firm five years ago. The last of its local vice-presidents left the firm last month, and almost all of its support functions have also been transferred out of the city. 

This company still employs more than 1,000 people here, but all of its key decisions are now made elsewhere, and the very high-paying executive jobs don’t exist here anymore. That can’t be good for the local economy. 

Still, the news isn’t all doom and gloom. 

The upside of this restructuring is that senior talent formerly employed at these anchor firms is now free to invest or work at new companies, which benefit from their experience, connections and wealth. Many of our current tech companies owe their existence to talented employees who got their start at the likes of Nortel and JDSU.

Many of these companies that were sold to multinationals still employ thousands of people in good-paying jobs in the capital. Those workers, combined with the public servants who make up a significant chunk of the labour force, have continued to give Ottawa a relatively high average income to help propel the local economy.

But much of the talent the city developed over the past decade has had to look outside of Ottawa to find new career opportunities. Some of the best and brightest executives have moved away, while others are still living here and commuting to new jobs in places such as Montreal and Toronto.

A few recent examples illustrate just how competitive the Ottawa job market is. 

A local not-for-profit for which I volunteer recently received more than 100 applications for its vacant head of human resources position. Meanwhile, a job fair at an Ottawa tech firm last month attracted more than 300 people, who were vying for 22 openings.

The bottom line is this: there are fewer and fewer good jobs available, especially in more senior executive posts, and the level of competition for these positions is rising all the time.  

The search firm I spoke with said many of today’s jobs call for higher standards of professionalism than in the past. Employers are looking for candidates with appropriate skills, professional designations and experience. 

I recently asked Claude Lague, dean of engineering at the University of Ottawa, about graduates’ job prospects. He agreed employers are looking for workers with a combination of skills and practical experience.

In an effort to help meet those demands, the university’s software engineering program now has a mandatory co-op component in which students combine classroom work with on-the-job training. Mr. Lague believes co-op placements will soon become the norm for many programs at both universities and colleges. 

This could dramatically impact students in a number of ways. Increased competition for co-op spots will likely mean many employers will require higher standards of academic achievement. In addition, many co-op students will probably have to look outside of Ottawa for placements due to a lack of local opportunities.  

I also asked the dean and the search firm executive which skills are most in demand in the Ottawa job market. The city still has a strong tech sector, especially in software development, so computer science, computer engineering, programming and systems design skills remain high on the list. Professional finance and accounting, health-care services and technology-related fields are among other areas that continue to grow.  

I was fortunate to be able to complete my education in Ottawa, find challenging work and have a very satisfying career without ever having to leave this great city. But our economy is changing, and I don’t know if my children will have that same opportunity. 

This situation is not unique to Ottawa, of course. Many urban economies are changing rapidly. Young people entering the workforce today must be willing to constantly adapt and be ready to possibly change careers several times during their lives. 

For Ottawa’s job market to improve, local companies must continue to expand and keep the majority of their corporate functions here. The light at the end of the tunnel is that we are now beginning to see the next generation of Ottawa-based firms start to grow.

 

Jeffrey Dale is the director and co-founder of the Odawa Group as well as the former president of the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation.