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A bi-weekly column with timely, relevant and possibly irreverent insight into the BC technology industry.

Something Ventured:
February 22nd, 2008

By Brent Holliday
Greenstone Venture Partners

BC’s Got Talent


“Get it together,

Like your big brother Bob.
Why don’t you,

Get a haircut and get a real job”

– George Thorogood, Get A Haircut And Get A Real Job


The BC Technology Industry Association recently released their TechTalentBC survey results to much fanfare.  The survey results were picked up by all the local newspapers that focused their stories on the current crunch in hiring talented staff.  The overall industry is growing and the number of new jobs created by the industry is estimated at 5,000 for the coming year.  That’s a whack of new positions when you consider that there are 69,000 jobs today. No wonder it’s tough to find qualified people.

Of course, this is good news that we have to solve problems related to growing the industry.  I remember 10 years ago when the first of these types of surveys was done, it essentially boiled down to one issue: Lower personal taxes so we can hire people and give them stock options.  Interestingly, that is not even on the radar anymore.  In fact, “stock options” didn’t even appear in the report anywhere.  The idea of giving stock options is still a core function of remuneration, especially in the start-ups, but the salary and many other non-monetary factors are more important to people getting hired.

If I can boil it down for you and possibly oversimplify things, there are some real challenges in our market for recruiting talent.  Using the study findings (which you should read yourself at this site) as well as the observations in the market that I am seeing every day, here are some issues in getting those 5,000 talented people: 

  • Over half of the available positions list at least 3 years of relevant work experience needed.  Newbies and graduates, the obvious source of new employees, have it tough when jobs require that kind of experience.  Where do you get experience when people won’t hire you?

  • The study talks about where to find talent.  Most of the companies find it in BC, which is poaching from others.  No net new jobs there.  Other than graduates, the talent must come from outside BC.  A list of impediments to that includes the cost of recruiting externally and the cost of living in Vancouver for a new recruit (the strength of our dollar has improved our salaries compared to the US, but it has made living here tougher for Americans…).

  • We are an industry of small companies.  Small companies tend not to recruit well and have zero budget for training staff while on the job.  For example, we apparently have 1,360 clean technology companies in BC (!) and only 179 in Life Sciences.  If we aren’t accidentally counting the Molly Maids of the world in Cleantech, we certainly have an issue with hiring and training. How do we train people to have better skills while on the job… and not feel like we are spending our money to train them to leave and get another job?

  • Really good hires tend to come from referrals.  If your core staff is excellent at what they do, chances are they know others like them.  The key is to make your existing good staff love your company and love the culture.  The study backs up the fact that location, culture and access to recreation are key factors to making your company desirable. How, exactly, do you improve your desirability?

  • How do you hire a leader?  Project leaders, team leaders and those aspiring to management are hard to identify when filling junior and intermediate positions.  But in order to avoid the tough recruiting down the road, the smart plan is to identify those that will rise to leadership positions. 

  • Specific to the start-up, where the job description becomes a floating target as the company grows, how do you identify the employee with the high tolerance for ambiguity?  The person who is a self-starter that can work without specific direction and move the company forward…  Some folks need direction all the time. They tend to work at larger more structured companies. 

In a nutshell, getting good people to work for you is hard in any environment.  The study says that this is even harder today in the current labour constrained market.

Here are some of the things that associations and companies are working on to help the situation in hiring good people and training them while on the job:

  • Increasing awareness of things like the Provincial Nominee Program, where you can get immigration sped up for skilled workers outside of NAFTA countries.  Only 23% of the study respondents had even heard of it.

  • Offering resources through web sites like TechTalentbc.org to assist companies without dedicated HR staff in best hiring practices (much of this is still to come…). 

  • Getting a handle on the proposed training credit that the BC government announced a year ago (before they got all Green on us) that supposedly gives a company money back for investing in training courses.

  • Helping recruit the young, educated talent (25-34) that I spoke of in the last column.  They are the ones that are attracted to Vancouver as a place to live and move here first, then look for work.  The 2010 Olympics will no doubt help with this…

The most important thing that you can do to hire better and identify the best prospects is talk to professionals who do this for a living.  Even if you don’t use their services right away, they have vast experience at this process.  Talk to your mentors/advisors or investors and get the scoop on identifying leaders.  Learn from their mistakes as well as their ideas for good hiring.

I can’t say this with enough emphasis… all of the successful companies have very good people making decisions and making product.  Finding them, hiring them and keeping them amounts to the number one critical success factor for your company.

What Do You Think? Talk Back To Brent Holliday

Something Ventured
is a bi-weekly column designed to supplement the T-Net British Columbia web site with some timely, relevant and possibly irreverent insight into the industry. I hope to share some of the perspective and trends that I see in my role as a VC. The column is always followed by feedback (if its positive or constructive. I'll keep the flames to myself, thanks).

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