Greater Victoria’s tech sector still booming, but recruiting a challenge

Victoria’s high-tech industry has grown by leaps and bounds in the past five years, but it’s still likely under-performing, according to the head of the Victoria Innovation, Advanced Technology and Entrepreneurship Council.

Dan Gunn, chief executive of VIATEC, said the sector might have grown 30 per cent since 2014, but it could have grown bigger and faster.

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“Growing 30 per cent sounds like a lot, but honestly I think the sector’s potential was higher than that,” he said. “We under-performed and we under-performed for one specific reason — we haven’t been able to find enough skilled and experienced talent.”

Gunn was reacting to a new economic impact study commissioned by VIATEC and written by Alan Chaffe, senior economics lecturer at the University of Victoria. The study, which VIATEC will release publicly on Monday, shows the tech sector has a $5.22-billion annual economic impact on the region, with combined annual revenue of its 955 companies of $4.06 billion, and employing 16,775 people directly.

“We were under the impression and pretty confident we were at $4 billion in revenue based on the level of activity since our last study, but it’s great to have that reaffirmed,” said Gunn. “We are confident of the numbers and we know there are a number of ways we could have used higher numbers to get a big story, but we wanted something accurate and conservative.”

The study, which predicts there will be in excess of 1,000 tech firms in the region by 2020, suggested the sector is on target to meet its goal of combined annual revenues of $10 billion by 2030. “We wanted to set a big, hairy, audacious goal to motivate the sector,” said Gunn. “This study revealed that not only is that attainable, but highly likely that we are going to hit that level of growth before 2030, which is fantastic.”

But it also comes with problems. Gunn said that kind of growth likely means as many as 15,000 more people working in the sector, leading to the questions of where those people will be found and how they will be housed when they are here.

The study pointed out housing availability, affordability and a skills shortage have been limiting factors to growth among the region’s tech firms.

Gunn said the region needs more breadth of opportunity — more companies and larger companies offering a variety of roles in order to attract talent.

But despite the challenges, the study revealed a highly optimistic sector in the region.

It noted the firms responding to the VIATEC survey estimated total revenues are expected to increase by nearly 13 per cent this year alone, while 77 per cent of all respondents indicated they expect to hire additional staff over the next two years.

If that happens, total employment in the technology sector would be expected to hit 18,280 by the end of 2019.

The study suggested that optimism is because of Greater Victoria’s quality of life, access to an educated workforce and close economic links within the Pacific Rim.

Gunn said studies like this are important both within and outside the sector.

“It shows the sector the value of what they are offering in their community, and seeing if they are ahead or behind pace,” he said. “And it gets the attention of policy makers to understand the value of it.”

Gunn said despite its growth and increasing profile, tech remains a pretty quiet industry, taking up anonymous real estate in the second floors of downtown buildings.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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