Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in a virtual town hall held by Western Economic Diversification Canada on Alberta’s recovery and potential for growth. My panel, alongside Cory Janssen of machine learning pioneers AltaML and Tom Ogaranko of blockchain traceability firm TrustBix, was called “Industry Voices: Facilitating a Resilient and Strong Future Economy”.
The topic may have been quite general, but it’s no coincidence that all three of our “industry voices” were from emerging areas of Alberta’s technology industry. In my case, both cleantech with my low-emissions firm Absolute Combustion, and blockchain, as the head of the Canadian Blockchain Consortium.
As our recovery has moved forward, technology and our economic future have become inextricably linked – even more so after Innovation Minister Doug Schweitzer announced Alberta’s $75M, tech-focused recovery plan in September.
Both Cory and Tom had some fascinating insights – I thought it was a lively and interesting panel discussion, and I hope the audience did, too. However, all the talk about becoming a province powered by digital transformation left me with an unanswered question:
What will this high-tech evolution mean for the Average Albertan?
The challenge we face is that the oil and gas industry has been an employer at a mass scale, one that supported, over the years, anywhere from 200,000 to 150,000 direct jobs in our province, with a spill-over effect that impacted countless other areas of employment, from the service sector and retail to construction and finance.
With continuing layoffs and the increasing adoption of automation technology, it’s clear that many of these jobs – even with a rebound in energy prices – will never come back. In September, our provincial jobless numbers, at 11.7%, were the second highest in the country, and Calgary held that same distinction for our major cities. According to Premier Jason Kenney, the real picture is likely even worse.
“We believe that the real unemployment number is significantly worse because of the number of people who left the labour market, stopped looking for work. And that just underscores what I’ve been saying since the beginning of COVID, which is that the economic and personal — the human consequences– are much deeper for Alberta than other parts of Canada because of the collapse in energy prices that happened along with it.”
Premier of Alberta
It’s important to recognize the human consequences of our economic crash – but we also need to understand the impact of our recovery plans. The technology industry is very different from resource extraction, and it’s going to take a smart and strategic set of policies to make sure that has the impact on direct and indirect employment we need to make the recovery inclusive.
First of all, technology companies are lean – they have to be, because a tremendous amount of early resources have to go towards long periods of research and development. They keep minimal office space and typically have a much small economic footprint than infrastructure-heavy oil and gas companies. And in the start-up phase – where most of Albertan tech is – employees often work for equity as part of their compensation during the urgent search for initial investment.
Technology firms are also flexible, with a structure that leads to a less concentrated workforce. They often outsource many of their roles overseas, rather than building a stable roster of local employees. Unlike resource companies, they have few unbreakable ties to Alberta – and if the market for their products or regional funding opportunities aren’t hospitable enough, they can easily move elsewhere.
According to Scott Galloway, who analyzed the most successful global technology companies in the “The Big Four”, their greatest location driver is close access to top talent – proximity to exceptional universities and start-up ecosystems. Alberta is full of brilliant minds and incredible STEM programs, and through retraining and skills transfer, we can start to build the kind of talent pool that translates from oil and gas to the digital economy.
Grants, employer subsidies and free training programs will not only let countless workers at all levels and skillsets move to new careers, but help Alberta overcome one of its biggest hurdles to technology leadership – a lack of skilled tech talent so severe that for years, we’ve spent countless millions of dollars scoured the world trying to recruit the workers we need to help our industry grow.
But as someone who has seen my own employees scale massive learning curves, I say: let’s have more faith in the ability of Albertans to adapt and give them the resources they need to do it. The millions of dollars we’ve spent on recruitment is money that could have been spent building our talent resources here in Alberta, and this it’s even more urgent now to make those programs happen.
At the Canadian Blockchain Association for Women, where I’m a director and founding member, we’ve created an initiative called TeachHer – geared towards women looking to enter the technology industry for the first time or move towards more specialized digital fields, it includes mentorship, resources and educational programs to support women making a pivot into our new economy.
The government of Alberta needs to devote significant resources towards facilitating similar types of skills upgrading, whether for specialized tech workers or for people who will just need a greater understanding of tech to stay competitive in the workforce. There will be so many systemic obstacles and challenges as people attempt to move from our traditional industries into the very different type of economy we’re planning on, and this need to be a policy driven at the highest levels.
In order for tech to have the kind of economic reverberation that can help make up for the loss of so many long-term, stable, high paying oil and gas jobs, we need to frontload our home-grown industry with enough support that our companies can afford to hire more workers, take out office space, and bring our product development back onshore – and then hope to capture a major location for a billion-dollar unicorn.
Our economy will look very different going forward, and I agree that Alberta’s future growth and opportunities rely on the strength of its technology sector. It’s a big vision that I’m optimistic about, but it needs to be one that supports a people-focused recovery, one that all Albertans are empowered to thrive in. Our province is in the middle of an immense and historic shift – and it’s our responsibility to ensure that no one is left behind.