Meta’s announcement in late March that it was putting down roots in Toronto with plans to hire 2,500 new workers in the city and across Canada was largely met with fanfare from politicians.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who announced the jobs himself at a press conference, touted the move as a boon for homegrown Canadian tech talent.
“Our tech talent no longer has to look elsewhere to pursue their careers,” he said at Meta’s announcement.
Ford’s economic development minister, Vic Fedeli, said in a statement the move will “strengthen the province’s innovation sector.”
But for the heads of Canadian companies watching the news of another U.S. tech giant putting more “high-paying” jobs into the pipeline, dreams of scaling up their own firms just became that much dimmer.
Canada’s tight tech talent pool
Hiring and retaining talent in Canada’s highly competitive market is a regular pain for Erin Bury, CEO of Willful, a 15-person startup founded in Toronto that makes software to streamline estate law.
Though Willful has made strides with early venture capital funding and a deal on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, Bury tells Global News she’s already had staff poached from tech giants hunting for Canadian talent.
“I know that my team is getting approached every single day by recruiters who represent these big firms or by these firms directly,” she tells Global News.
Meta, which already has a modest shop in Toronto, Montreal and a few other markets in Canada, is just the latest major firm to eye the Canadian talent pool over the past few years.
Microsoft, Google, Twitter, Pinterest, Reddit and Netflix all announced some level of Canadian hiring plans, largely for engineering roles, over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Toronto has emerged as a hotbed for engineering talent in the wake of a head-turning New York Times piece that positioned the city as a top-three tech hub in North America, behind only Miami and Austin, Texas. That story cited a 2021 report from commercial real estate firm CBRE, which tracks top tech talent.
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Those companies are adding to the pressure on a historically tight national job market — Statistics Canada said the country’s unemployment rate fell to 5.3 per cent in March, the lowest level on record.
Employment growth in the tech sector has been undeterred over the course of the pandemic.
There were 855,000 people employed in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector last month, according to data provided to Global News from StatCan. That’s up from 780,000 jobs in the industry a year before that and 743,000 workers in March 2020.
Over that same time, hourly wages in ICT have risen to $40.98, up from $38.23 at the start of the pandemic.
“It’s become very competitive, and we’ve already seen Willful team members who have left to go to larger U.S. firms. We just cannot compete with the base salaries,” says Bury.
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Though Willful still has a small office in Toronto, the company took the pandemic as an opportunity to go almost fully remote and expand its hiring pool outside Ontario to add employees everywhere from Vancouver to Halifax.
On the face of it, the move gave Bury access to a wider hiring pool. But on a relative basis, looking outside Toronto didn’t materially change the talent crunch.
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“While we’ve widened our talent pool, so has everybody else. And you’ve seen a lot of companies who may have been more focused around the office in, say, San Francisco, open up their hiring to folks in Canada, folks all over.
“We’re now not only competing with other startups, we’re competing with the large companies we already were, like Shopify, and now we’re going to be competing with some of the new entrants, like Netflix and Pinterest and Meta.”
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Ben Bergen, the president of the Council of Canadian Innovators, says despite Toronto and other Canadian markets having strong tech talent, there was already a national labour shortage in the industry before Meta announced its hiring plans.
CCI estimates put the current number of open vacancies in Canadian tech at 200,000 positions.
“When you have a company like Meta or some of the other companies come to Ontario and say that they’re going to be creating jobs, that actually isn’t the case. It’s going to be actually a shuffling or a reshuffling of jobs,” Bergen tells Global News.
“All this does is apply additional pressure on the labour market, which is already extremely tight.”
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While competition was previously tightest in Toronto and Vancouver, Bergen says companies in smaller markets such as Winnipeg and Saskatoon are now facing talent crunches in the remote-first era.
Meta, however, does not see its presence as a drag on Canada’s talent pool — the tech giant believes its presence will bolster Canadian talent.
Rachel Curran, Meta’s public policy manager in Canada, told Global News in an interview that the company’s hiring ambitions might put some “short-term pressures” on the labour market but disputed the framing that it will just end up as a talent siphon.
“I think that’s a pretty short-term and zero-sum view of things. We view this investment as helping build the ecosystem overall, we are expanding the total size of the sector,” she said.
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Healthy tech sectors include companies of all sizes, Curran said, where today’s engineers can learn to be tomorrow’s startup founders.
She also distinguishes Meta specifically from other tech giants that have announced hiring plans in Canada, arguing that the company’s grand ambitions for the Metaverse will create new economic opportunities for global tech firms.
“We have a long-term vision for this sector, which is really going to expand the size of it,” she said.
‘Purpose’ as a hiring pitch
Whether Canada’s overall tech talent pool grows or contracts in the wake of Meta’s expansion, startups are already waking up to the need to reinvent their hiring and retention strategies.
Shawn Hewat is the CEO of Vancouver-based Wavy, a 20-person startup that helps other companies track their workplace culture. Hewat says Wavy has tripled its headcount in the past year by shifting its hiring approach in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the talent crunch.
First, the company immediately went remote when the pandemic began, looking to the United Kingdom and India to fill positions.
Though Wavy has expanded rapidly, Hewat says it’s also scaled-down hiring plans to stretch the company’s payroll as far as it can go.
Companies often have to “do more with less,” Hewat says, by paying a core team of workers more to meet the surging market rates for talent.
But the biggest recruitment tool Wavy has is its own specialty: workplace culture.
Making sure employees feel valued and excited to come into work requires careful attention from managers from the get-go, both to attract and retain talent.
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Hewat says she’s received messages from new hires that Wavy has given the “most warm welcome” any of her staff have received at a remote-first company.
“You can’t compete compensation-wise and perks-wise the same way you can with a Netflix or Meta or Shopify, even,” she says. “It really does come down to finding people who are vision and values aligned, who want to come in at an early stage and make that big impact.”
Meta, too, makes the value argument in their hiring pitch, calling on prospective employees to help them “build the metaverse.” Curran says the company’s virtual realm ambitions could see new hires play a hand in crafting a “whole new economy for internet creators.”
But Bury says startups can sell themselves as the anti-Big Tech to stand out from the crowd. Employees who care about “more than just the number on the paycheck” can be wooed into joining early-stage companies if they’re looking to get in on the ground level of something they believe in, she says.
“They don’t necessarily want to go work at the Fortune 500 brands because they feel like they can make more of a difference (at a startup),” Bury says.
“There’s more purpose.”
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