Meeting recruitment challenges in innovative sectors in Québec’s regions

Original article by Chloé-Anne Touma in CScience, translated by Mitacs

The shortage of skilled technology workers is affecting companies in all sectors of the Québec economy. To get an overview of the recruitment challenges and needs specific to the various industries in which the regions stand out, CScience spoke to Simon Bousquet, Vice-President of Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization which, in partnership with universities, the private sector and the governments of Canada and Québec, helps meet these organizational challenges through paid internships.

Although the adoption and mastery of new technologies are a priority for many companies, the lack of in-house expertise and the shortage of skilled workers remain a significant obstacle for employers wishing to drive innovation within their organizations, including those in the regions, despite their potential for economic growth.

A 2022 report by the Information and Communications Technology Council predicts that within two years, Canadian employers will need to fill an additional 250,000 technology jobs. The results of a survey conducted by the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME) also reveal that a third of companies lagging in digital transformation attribute this in part to a shortage of skilled workers.

Sectors and fields of interest for regional recruitment

Quantum in Estrie

According to Simon Bousquet, each region has developed its own area(s) of expertise, for which the demand for talent is not to be outdone. “In Estrie, the Université de Sherbrooke comes to mind, where an innovation cluster in quantum sciences has been built up, with spin-offs that extend to other universities with which it collaborates.” CScience was in Bromont for the inauguration of IBM’s quantum supercomputer, an acquisition that promises major spin-offs for several Québec industries, and growing interest in quantum science and the recruitment of talent in this field.

“The quantum ecosystem remains very interesting and concentrated in the region, attracting a number of companies and start-ups who choose to set up there to benefit from the training program on offer, and the talent pool that exists,” a significant advantage in a context of skilled labour shortage, as Mr. Bousquet reminds us. It would therefore be in our interest to move closer to talent rather than rely on it moving to the metropolises.

The VP of Mitacs also believes that the region’s quantum innovation will attract a diverse range of up-and-coming candidates. “Previously, to work in quantum physics, you had to be a physicist. Today, although the sector remains niche, it also involves mathematicians and engineers, opening up a wide range of career opportunities in the field.”

Marine industry, forestry and renewable energy

Gaspésie-Îles-de-la-Madeleine is renowned for its fishing and recreational tourism industries. Renewable energies are also a more recent focus. “In Bas-Saint-Laurent, we’ll be talking about the blue economy, i.e., technologies benefiting the maritime sector, in collaboration with Gaspésie-Îles-de-la-Madeleine.”

A new innovation zone in this field will be created in Rimouski and Gaspésie. The project, which will make the Grande-Rivière and Sainte-Thérèse-de-Gaspé area “The Blue Zone”—the fourth innovation zone launched by the Québec government—will focus on the various aspects of marine resource exploitation, from capture to biotechnology processing and product valorization, for the benefit of sustainable fishing.

“The Outaouais region stands out in the forestry sector, as well as for its specialized cybersecurity research centres, a sector that we wouldn’t necessarily associate with this region. In Abitibi-Témiscamingue, the niches targeted by companies are the forestry and mining sectors. In the Mauricie region, the focus is on robotics and automation, and several companies are innovating in clean technologies.”

The IT sector and artificial intelligence

“In the City of Québec, we’re thinking about everything to do with digital transformation, artificial intelligence, finance and governance. We might also mention information and communication technologies (ICT), but few administrative regions are developing a niche talent pool in ICT.”

A report by Techno Compétences reveals that in 2020, there were 262,800 ICT professionals, with the majority (60%) concentrated in Greater Montréal, illustrating the need for regional recruitment.

But is enough being done to propel and enhance innovation on an equitable basis in Québec, particularly in sectors such as AI, which tend to be directly associated with Mila (the Institut québécois d’intelligence artificielle) and the Montréal ecosystem in particular?

According to Mr. Bousquet, although access to AI has been democratized over the years, a significant concentration of the field remains in Montréal, if only because of population density. “There’s certainly the research side, which is interested in developing AI technologies, but there’s also the side that focuses on its possible applications, because AI is a tool,” notes the VP of Mitacs. “A company in a very remote region may want to use it, but the obstacle it may encounter is not knowing where to start to access the tool. If you’ve got the machine, but not the manual, you’re not very far along! This is undoubtedly the reason why companies in the regions are lagging in terms of innovation in the sector. Fortunately, there are now training programs, even at college level, to help democratize and develop AI literacy.” Think of the technical specialization in artificial intelligence, developed jointly by Cégep de Sainte-Foy in the City of Québec and Collège de Bois-de-Boulogne in Montréal, in response to strong job market demand in the sector.

Talent attraction and retention challenges for the regions

Competing with major centres

The need for recruitment, exacerbated by the prevailing shortage of skilled labour, is affecting the AI and computer science sectors in particular, including engineering. “All companies have needs in these niches. On a regional level, the need is felt in key sectors, but from one region to another, we generally find that the challenges are the same in terms of retention and attraction: we have difficulty retaining local talent, who often prefer to try their luck in Montréal or a larger centre, but we also have difficulty attracting immigrants, notably because they are more likely to forge links with their diaspora by settling in Montréal.”

The other issue, according to Mr. Bousquet, is the lack of housing. “In fact, universities sometimes have difficulty accommodating their international students, especially in other Canadian provinces. And when it comes to SMEs, it is hard to offer salaries as competitive as those in major centres or in the United States, where large companies attract our talent.”

Multimedia tax credit

One of the problems often cited by Québec technology companies is that foreign technology companies are subsidized to set up in the province and create jobs. Think of the multimedia tax credit, which reimburses up to 37.5% of employees’ salaries, leading to an overbidding of salaries that would be detrimental to Québec companies in competition, since these incentives mainly attract companies to Montréal.

When asked by CScience about this issue, Québec’s Minister of Economy, Innovation and Energy, Pierre Fitzgibbon, referred instead to a beneficial reproductive effect for the sector: “Many people affected by the labour shortage wonder why we encourage foreign companies to take advantage of tax credits for hiring. But in the case of Ubisoft, it’s a great success, because we’ve created a lot of momentum. We’ve seen a lot of people leave Ubisoft to either start up their own business, or go and work for CAE, a leader in healthcare simulation technologies. These tax credits, introduced several years ago, have served Québec well,” the Minister defended.

The solution

Capitalize on existing regional incentives

What incentives should regional companies focus on to attract and retain the next generation? According to Mr. Bousquet, working conditions, quality of life and cost of living are often better there, offering numerous advantages. “The real estate market is a good example, since the ability to purchase a house is more attractive. Many employers also offer telecommuting, which attracted talent during the pandemic.”

Creating new incentives

The VP of Mitacs also believes that companies would do well to embrace digital transformation. “Employers must roll out the red carpet to keep their people, recognize the balance and conciliation between work and family, offer benefits and good working conditions, but also ensure that they generate a sense of accomplishment and commitment for their employees, so that they feel they are contributing to the overall growth and innovation of their company.”

Enhancing the contribution of universities and colleges

To this he adds the importance of not underestimating the role of the post-secondary environment. “Collaborating with the post-secondary sector, hiring students, reduces the risk. Through internships, for example, we bring together a company that is not necessarily already at the heart of innovation, but which has, let’s say, a very specific need, and a student who can meet it. This is where we demonstrate the added value of a student with a master’s or doctorate, and the innovation he or she brings to help the company change its culture. We’re talking about collaborations that don’t strain internal staff, and that enable companies to grow, innovate, diversify revenues and optimize internal processes.”

Promoting international exchange

Universities also represent an important channel for attracting international talent. For Mr. Bousquet, the contribution of foreign students entering the Canadian job market is not negligible either. “By default, they are highly qualified, and contribute very quickly to the country’s economic growth.”

According to government data, nearly 500,000 immigrants working in Canada are trained in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). They account for 39% of computer programmers and 41% of engineers. Statistics Canada’s 2016 census also reveals that a large proportion of international students enrolled in STEM-related programs end up staying and pursuing careers in Canada.

“They are, by default, highly qualified, and contribute very quickly to the country’s economic growth,” adds the VP of Mitacs which, since 2009, has matched over 1,000 graduating undergraduates with professors from Canadian universities through its Mitacs Globalink internship program, which promotes the international mobility of undergraduate and graduate students between Canada and nearly twenty other countries.

According to Mr. Bousquet, the vitality of the international French-speaking community has led to a number of partnerships with Québec universities in the regions. “Think of the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR), which has partnerships in Europe and French-speaking Africa, or the Université de Sherbrooke with France.” As for Université Laval in the City of Québec, 14% of its students have an international profile, equivalent to some 1,000 students from the French-speaking world, according to data reported by its rector, Yann Cimon.

Mitacs’s programs receive funding from multiple partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon for supporting us to empower Canadian innovation. 

Do you have a business challenge that could benefit from a research solution? If so, contact Mitacs today to discuss partnership opportunities:

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Mitacs Team

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