Tech triangle a land of paradox

WATERLOO, Ont. — When most people think BlackBerry they think of the booming high-tech company Research In Motion Ltd. making billions — an outfit with thousands of employees, easily bankrolling a millionaires’ row in its hometown of Waterloo in southwestern Ontario.

Michael Savage

WATERLOO, Ont. — When most people think BlackBerry they think of the booming high-tech company Research In Motion Ltd. making billions — an outfit with thousands of employees, easily bankrolling a millionaires’ row in its hometown of Waterloo in southwestern Ontario.

And indeed, in Canada’s so-called Technology Triangle — the cities of Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge — as many as 2,000 high-paying, high-tech jobs are going begging.

But in a startling juxtaposition, the region is also registering an unemployment rate of 9.2 per cent, higher than the national average of 8.6 per cent.

And even here, there are homeless living on the streets.

The number of unemployed has nearly doubled compared to this time last year, with 26,000 people out of jobs now compared to 14,500 in 2008.

But while the jobless numbers rise, there are 1,500 to 2,000 jobs open every day at the approximately 550 high-tech companies that inhabit the Technology Triangle.

Why the glaring discrepancy?

Though 30,000 people work in the industry, community leaders believe they may have a classic skills mismatch on their hands.

Many of those available, well-paying, high-tech jobs are highly specialized or require significant experience, or both, says Iain Klugman, CEO of Communitech, a 600-member, high-tech industry association.

Salaries ranged from $50,000 to more than $177,000 in 2008, but the qualifications are steep.

“It’s not just about smart people, its about smart people with some very specific skills, abilities and experience,” Klugman said.

“Filter tuning is a very specific kind of area that is not a common skill, working in optics and optical engineering is a very specific skill, software space is a very specific skill.

“So that’s really the problem.”

Ken Seiling, chairman of the regional municipality of Waterloo which includes five of the seven municipalities in the Statistics Canada measurement, said there are a number of factors pushing up the unemployment rate.

“Our manufacturing sector has been hit pretty hard over the last couple of years and so there are a lot of people who have lost their jobs as a result of that,” Seiling said.

Kitchener and Cambridge in particular are in the heartland of Ontario’s manufacturing collapse.

Seiling said he believes even before the world economy went sour in late 2008 and early 2009, people from other parts of the country migrated to a region they believed had a plethora of jobs.

“It was seen as kind of a hot community in terms of job creation, that things were going on here, it was economically strong, and that people came here looking for jobs.”

Even the manufacturing industry, struggling to hire people back, is experiencing a mismatch.

Most manufacturers want at least a Grade 12 education, and many want skills gained at colleges.

Yet 36 per cent of pure labourers and 27 per cent of the more than 20,000 people employed in processing and manufacturing in the area had not finished high school, according to Statistics Canada 2006 census data.

There is concern that even as manufacturing begins hiring again, these people will re-enter the sector at much lower levels, with wages in the $12 to $16 range, and be vulnerable to future layoffs.

“These things often take time,” said Klugman. “So people thinking that they can retool themselves in a matter of weeks is often unrealistic because it’s usually … a much longer-term commitment to get the skills necessary to re-enter the labour force.”

Mike Savage, who co-founded the Out of the Cold Program at Waterloo’s First United Church as a way to help get the homeless off the streets and into jobs, said the people he reaches out to are “hurting big time.”

“When you factor in… rapid loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector… yeah, we’re hurting,” Savage said.

Some of those he deals with will never make it into the workforce no matter how many jobs RIM and other high-tech companies have to offer.

Edward Straub is one of them. He watched helplessly from the streets as the mansions went up all around him in Waterloo. After 20 years of being homeless, he says he has little hope of getting a job.

“Nobody wants to hire a person like me,” Straub says. “I’m an epileptic and I take seizures. If I take a seizure at work I can get hurt, so they wouldn’t hire me.”

With no money, Straub ate out of garbage cans and slept outside for years — including on a cardboard box in a horse stable.

Seiling says municipalities have limited tools to fix the skills mismatch.

The region’s council has put money towards expanding Connestoga College to get more skills training into the community. It is also investing in the area’s medical school to resolve the local doctor and specialist shortages.

“We’ve got to push on to improve educational quality in the community but… I think municipalities have some pretty significant limitations,” said Seiling, who is calling on other levels of government to step up and help.

“The tools really are (in the hands of) the feds and the province…in terms of Employment Insurance, training, worker mobility and those kinds of things.”

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