Tech sector looks to lure Alberta talent to BC

It was a snowy weekend in Calgary when Richard Tuck arrived from B.C. to attend a job fair. He wasn’t there looking for a high-paying job in a frigid climate, as so many other British Columbians have done the past two decades.

Tuck, the CEO of Vancouver-based tech startup Riipen, was there to recruit workers to come to B.C.

“The Alberta economy, just in general, is so dependent on oil. It’s supposed to be that stable industry, whereas tech startups are very unstable,” he told Business in Vancouver after returning from the January 31 job fair at the HTML500 coding camp.

“And here you have that stable community failing, so why not take a risk and join a startup?”

Alberta Premier Jim Prentice said in mid-January the sharp drop in oil prices would likely hit the province hard, noting Suncor (TSX:SU) would be laying off 1,000 oilsands workers.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark followed up the next week by announcing that Victoria would buy advertising in Alberta aimed at bringing skilled workers to the West Coast.

Enticing workers to move from Alberta to B.C. would reverse labour market trends that have been ongoing since the 1990s.

B.C. has experienced a net loss of about 42,000 people over the past two decades with about half of those moving to Alberta, according to a May 2014 report from the Business Council of BC (BCBC). In the last two years alone, 7,500 of those people were in the 15-to-24, 25-to-34 and 35-to-44 age groups.

BCBC economist and report co-author Ken Peacock said that after years of strain on the B.C. labour market, the province can “almost certainly” count on a large number of those people returning from Alberta.

He noted the workers essentially fall into two categories: those who have moved with their families across the Rockies or interprovincial employees who work in Alberta for extended periods while technically residing in B.C.

Peacock said it may be trickier to bring back people who’ve already uprooted their families once, but a high-tech worker doing contract work would be a good example of someone who would move back.

While tech jobs in B.C. may be abundant, Peacock said Albertans in the tech industry should expect to take a pay cut if they move to the West Coast.

BC Technology Industry Association CEO Bill Tam said it might still be too early to tell how the decline in Alberta’s oil industry will affect B.C.’s tech sector.

“But I think that there’s every evidence that we’ll start to reverse the trend, and we’ll start to see people come back to B.C.,” he said, adding that Alberta’s struggling oil and gas sector could lose skilled workers with backgrounds in engineering or business services.

“They might consider a movement into a different industry category, and that’s where I think there are some real benefits, as people [are] moving not just across provincial lines but also across job and sector lines.”

Tam, who’s originally from Calgary, said he also expects staff who worked in the information technology divisions of major oil and gas companies to head west for work.

“People in Calgary are very willing to move where the opportunities are. It’s naturally that sort of city.”

torton@biv.com

@reporton

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