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By Dallas Gislason, SIPP Director of Economic Development
Feature Photo Credit: Candace Beres

“The billboards loom over Highway 101 from San Francisco to San Jose. Emblazoned with Canada’s red maple leaf emblem, they pose provocative questions: ‘What if my visa gets canceled? What if I lose my job and health insurance?’”

This is the opening to a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle that points out the message Canada is sending to Silicon Valley: we want your talent. As I recently wrote in this Douglas Magazine piece, this pandemic is already leading to the decentralization of big tech. Companies like Twitter, Google, Facebook and many others have either extended work from home policies or made them permanent. According to a recent survey, two-thirds of Bay Area tech workers would consider permanently leaving if they could continue working remotely. Why live in one of America’s most expensive cities if you don’t need to commute to the office?

This presents a major opportunity for mid-sized metro-regions like Greater Victoria that boast a high quality of life, top-notch amenities, world-class schools, safe neighbourhoods and excellent management when it comes to the pandemic. Attracting these talented innovators and tech workers is all part of feeding an innovation eco-system that has emerged here over the last 15 years and now exceeds 900 companies and over 16,000 workers.

One thing that this pandemic has revealed to us is that we need to diversify our regional economy. An increasingly vibrant innovation eco-system is what this region needs in order to do that. But our tech industry has met with constraints in recent years as finding the right talent to help elevate their ventures has been tough. This is why we need to talk about attracting qualified talent from outside our country. Since Canada’s beginning, immigrants have propelled our growth and preserved our high quality of living; and they are needed for our future, as this article by Lisa Lalande, CEO of Century Initiative, points out.

Understandably, some residents will question the need to recruit talent from beyond our borders as population growth will . They worry about COVID-19, of course, but they also worry about other impacts on our region, especially in drive up of housing costs and strain on our infrastructure and social institutions. They don’t want to see us become another tech boom town with out-of-control growth.
The reality is that we can preserve our quality of life while still absorbing new people, talent and ideas from beyond our borders (in fact, our region already grows by 4000+ people per year!). The key is to plan our region as intelligently as possible and to stay true to what we, as a region, value.

Our shared values were evident in the first recommendations to emerge from the Rising Economy Taskforce committees — a collaborative group of 120-plus people from government, private industry, non-profits, and First Nations. The collaboration of the Taskforce and sector committees, and the resulting recommendations, shows clearly that South Islanders value smart, responsible and inclusive growth in our region — and we recognize that healthy growth is essential to preserving the way of life we value and to sustaining our local businesses and local tax base.

If we shut the door to recruiting talent from beyond our borders, we quash healthy growth. The BC Government has recognized the need to attract tech talent through a fast-track pilot program within the Provincial Nominee Program. This program allows us to target immigrants based on economic need in order to get them into Canada quicker.

The BC fast-track pilot program may be the goose that laid the golden egg — if we are prepared to rally around this idea to fuel our innovation eco-system. As you can imagine, the world’s technology and innovation epicentre (Silicon Valley) is a crowded market, with talent to spare. While we certainly don’t want to become another Silicon Valley, we do want to support businesses to create family-sustaining jobs in the tech industry. Doing so also has economic spin-offs for the coffee shops, restaurants, boutiques, retailers, theatres and construction companies that count tech employees among their customers.

Moving Beyond Mono-culture

Let’s also look at immigration as a way to diversify our economy — and a diverse economy is essential to our economic survival. This article in MarketWatch points to all the “initiatives” that big tech companies have launched as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement. However, as the authors point out, doing this within the mono-culture that Silicon Valley has become is difficult. The lesson for us is that if we don’t diversify, we risk losing an innovative edge.

And it’s not just new talent from beyond our borders that helps us diversify. It’s vital to seek out and nurture talent amongst the diversity of people who already live here, including women, racialized people, Indigenous people, immigrants and more. VIATEC, our region’s tech association, has been moving toward increased inclusion and diversity initiatives. Their new
W Venture program looks to grow women-led enterprises from a current baseline of just 10% of founders being women. The 2020 edition of their Discover Tectoria exhibition featured a “women in tech” lounge for the first time. New workshops are emerging that focus on inclusive hiring and more.

SIPP has long believed in the importance of diversity and inclusion to a region’s economy. We spelled out the vast benefits of this in a 2019 blog post. The importance of diversity is also why the Rising Economy Taskforce launched both an Inclusive Economy Committee and an Indigenous Economy Committee.

Attracting New People and New Ideas

Later in August, the South Island Prosperity Partnership will release the 10 sector committee reports that were put together through the Rising Economy Taskforce process announced back in April. There are many common themes in these reports them, but one major one is the recognition that if our region comes together to create a networked brand portfolio and takes that to the world (including Silicon Valley), we will be major benefactors as we attract new innovators, new entrepreneurs, new students, new investment, and yes, people from diverse walks of life who bring new perspectives and ideas to the region.

We can do this without threatening our way of life, and so we should — because if there’s one key message we heard through the Rising Economy Taskforce process, it’s this — we don’t want anyone to be left behind as we define our new economic future. We can rise together.

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