Kristina McDougall summed it up best.
“The past few years have been zany from a talent perspective,” said the founder of Waterloo-based executive search firm Artemis Canada.
Zany, yes, but also stressful for workers and founders alike.
That was the underlying theme throughout a panel discussion that McDougall helped kick off earlier this week about the current state of tech employment.
After a red-hot market for workers, the industry is now struggling through a period of turbulence that has birthed a number of contradictory trends – none more perplexing than the impact on talent.
Mass layoffs here, steady hiring there, highly skilled roles that can’t be filled.
“We’re here to try to make sense of all of this,” said Catherine McIntyre, a reporter for The Logic, which sponsored the panel discussion at Catalyst Commons in Kitchener.
More than 191,000 tech workers have lost their jobs globally so far in 2023. The Canadian tech community was hit again on Thursday with Shopify’s decision to layoff another 20 per cent of its workforce. In Waterloo Region, an estimated 600 tech workers have been laid off over the past year. Meanwhile, more than 6,800 jobs were posted on Communitech's Work in Tech job board as of 5 p.m. Friday.
Panelist Kris Braun, a former Google employee who recently became CTO of software-maker Collide, said the sudden market change for tech workers has been “a bit of a whiplash.”
“It wasn’t very long ago that the vibe was, ‘Am I missing out on something if I’m staying where I am? Should I be moving?’ Because it seemed that things were so frothy that any new job was going to mean an increase (in salary). And now it’s quite different.”
Braun added, however, that most of the laid-off tech workers he knows have found new jobs, either in Canada or abroad.
“They are finding work, for the most part,” he said. “Within the bounds of the severance (package), that search period seems to be adequate to find something.”
Joseph Fung, founder and CEO of sales-training firm Uvaro, agreed. He said that while Canada is down about 10 per cent from the peak tech-hiring period 16 months ago, total tech job employment is still ahead of where it was before the COVID-19 pandemic started three years ago.
“I think a lot of the layoffs are very transient,” he said. “The total number of jobs that are being posted on a daily, weekly basis have been pretty static.… So we’re still significantly above pre-pandemic levels.”
One change that Fung has seen is in the kind of roles that employers are trying to fill
“The composition has changed a bit,” he said. “What we see in customer-facing roles is that the number of business-development roles, like sales-development rep jobs, are down by about 30 per cent from 16 months ago. So companies are less-aggressively expanding their footprints.”
On the flipside, he said account-management roles – those focused on customer retention – are up about 50 per cent.
“We’re seeing more companies retrenching, focusing on their existing customers,” Fung said. “And the competition is different. We used to see a lot more American headquarter companies hiring in Canada, and the rate of those jobs is down also about 30 per cent. So, a lot more domestic competition, not quite as much international competition.”
Mary Wells, Dean of Engineering at the University of Waterloo, said co-op placements are down by about 10 per cent.
“There is a sense of concern, I would say, amongst students,” said Wells. “Many are still getting hired, but it may just take a little longer.”
She added that students are still optimistic about their career prospects, and that UW has seen an increase in enrolment applications, especially for engineering and computer science programs.
“There’s huge demand (for technical programs) among young people,” said Wells. “In order to want to study these things, you must have optimism for the future that there will be jobs that you’re going to be able to go into.”
A member of the audience noted that when BlackBerry laid off thousands of staff back in the 2010-13 period, the local ecosystem benefited from the many talented tech workers who joined smaller companies or launched their own startups. Will we see the same kind of community benefit this time around? he asked.
The panelists had differing responses.
Braun said Waterloo Region now has more tech companies, and a wider variety of them, and so it has been able to absorb laid-off talent better than it could during the BlackBerry transition.
“I wonder if the diversity and resilience that was formed (back then) means that we experience this differently now,” he said. “There’s more places to go, which is why the layoffs kind of naturally diffuse into things…. Even if the major (companies) are doing layoffs, there’s just kind of a healthy diverse community ready to look for talent.”
One fallout benefit for smaller tech companies may be that they don’t have to compete so much with the big salaries offered by Google and other tech heavyweights, said Braun.
“It’s maybe a little too early to see how things are rebalancing, but I do wonder if a lot of the other companies in our ecosystem can finally get back to the hiring they’ve been trying to do in a more reasonable way.”
Fung said that one major difference between the BlackBerry downsizing period and now is that government isn’t providing the financial support to reskill workers the way it did 10 years ago.
“I think it’s going to be completely different – palpably different, and it’s not going to feel better,” he said. “The government funding to drive that reskilling, that re-careering, that endeavour, does not exist right now…. It is not fashionable right now for political support to go into reskilling laid-off engineers from Google or others.”
Laid-off workers who have the skill and inclination to start their own companies will likely “do fine,” Fung said, but other tech workers may not fare so well.
“For the folks who are displaced in routine roles – frontline manager, middle management – it is going to be a tougher experience for them because we won’t have that galvanizing opportunity (that government support provided during the BlackBerry period),” he said. “It’s going to be different. I hope I’m wrong, but I think it’s going to be different.
Braun also noted that layoffs don’t just affect those who lose their jobs. They also impact the remaining employees and the work environment.
“I think it’s hard to measure,” he said. “But some fundamental things in terms of the relationships between team-to-mission and trust of leadership suffer a lot… and I think there are financial implications that last a certain amount of time in terms of what it takes for the team to refigure and reorient around mission and all those kinds of things.”
One positive, Wells noted, is a growing desire among tech students to stay in Canada rather than to build their careers abroad in places like Silicon Valley. She praised Communitech’s True North strategy for trying to persuade Canadian talent to stay home and show that Canada is the best place in the world to build a tech company.
“There is the saying ‘Cali or bust’ amongst our students, in terms of the aspiration is to get a job in California,” she said. “I must say that the work Communitech is doing in this region around the idea of Team True North is just amazing. That creation of a network of Canadian startups, and how as a community and as a nation we can come together to help these companies grow, is really inspirational. I feel my job as dean now is to change the ‘Cali or bust’ saying to ‘Team True North or bust.’”