(Canadian Business) Facebook Grants BC Some Face Time

By Jim Sutherland
As seen on Canadian Business

Facebook’s plans to open a temporary Vancouver office employing 150 people, mostly software engineers, has generated a lot of curiosity. But local information technology workers aren’t expecting a jobs bonanza.

Most assume the new operation will be used to train recruits from overseas who will be transferred to one of Facebook’s U.S. locations as soon as their American visas come through, says Cliff Hammerschmidt, an engineer and organizer of the Vancouver Software Developers Network. Canadian information technology workers, by contrast, can cross the border easily, so the new outpost isn’t likely about hiring them.

Indeed, while Facebook is recruiting aggressively in Canada, especially at universities, the social-media behemoth has said that employees trained in Vancouver will come from around the world. Of its 35 offices worldwide, only four contain permanent engineering staff, so there’s little chance the B.C. boot camp will transition into a permanent development office.

American tech companies have long complained about an immigration system that makes it difficult to bring in offshore talent to their home bases. And while Facebook sources confirm that the Vancouver office will open at a downtown location in late May, they can’t say what “temporary” might mean. It could be there for just a year, or it could become permanent.

For all the unknowns, people in the industry regard Facebook’s arrival as a positive development. The company’s presence will build local momentum without overly stressing a labour climate that, if not quite at 1999 or 2007 levels, is beginning to run a little hot, according to Bill Tam, president of the British Columbia Technology Industry Association. And Facebook sources say the opening will be accompanied by lots of community outreach, as well as the repatriation, however temporary, of some Canadian-born employees.

Other IT multinationals, it’s worth noting, have come to Vancouver and stayed, including SAP, which employs more than 1,200 in the city; Amazon, with a three-figure roster of engineers working out of downtown offoces; Microsoft, which maintains a complement of several hundred employees in Vancouver and established a Victoria office in 2011; Salesforce.com, which launched a local development centre last summer; and Electronic Arts, which has been shrinking its local payroll in concert with declining corporate fortunes.

Now, if only local startups could attain the same kind of critical mass. While technology companies employ some 85,000 British Columbians—more than all resource industries combined, Tam points out—the growth rate has been coasting along at about 6% annually—around the Canadian average but less than the global norm of 7% or 8%. Based on a recent study, Tam blames much of this on the province’s failure to generate the kind of homegrown, mid-sized and larger companies that tend to produce the fastest growth. For that, he cites factors ranging from the political (for example, a lack of preferential government procurement that European and U.S. competitors enjoy) to the notorious dearth of venture capital. Perhaps most telling is the local predilection to produce solid technology but come up short on its sales and marketing.

The City of Vancouver recently announced a $30-million digital strategy, complete with an incubator program designed to help overcome some of the obstacles. Even better might be just a tiny bit of Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerburg, rubbing off on the locals.

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