(Globe and Mail) B.C. Premier promises ‘significant’ new funds for postsecondary tech education

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B.C. Premier Christy Clark says her government is set to beef up funding to the postsecondary system to help address a chronic talent shortage in the province’s tech sector.

“You’re going to see some big investments in the postsecondary system … to make sure that we’re growing our tech [sector],” the Premier told The Globe and Mail in an interview last week. “There will be some announcements coming in the next little while with respect to investing in computer science in particular in universities … it will be a significant amount.”

In July, 18 high-level B.C. tech executives, including Hootsuite Media CEO Ryan Holmes and Electronic Arts chief financial officer Jonathan Lutz, wrote to Ms. Clark asking the province to make a series of moves to increase the amount of technology talent coming through B.C.’s universities.

They called on the province to spend $100-million expanding technology-related postsecondary programs, to implement tech-related co-op programs at postsecondary institutions such as the renowned programs at University of Waterloo in Ontario and to build awareness of career opportunities in technology.

“New computer science and technology graduates from B.C.’s postsecondary institutions simply cannot meet the demand for these well-paying positions,” they wrote. To build B.C. into a global technology leader “requires doubling down now on postsecondary education.”

The letter noted that Vancouver was once ranked fourth internationally in terms of global tech talent, but between 2012 and 2015, the city has fallen 10 places to 14th.

“There’s only one long-term solution: ensuring that our own colleges and universities are educating students for tomorrow’s careers. This isn’t an abstract problem but one we face now.”

Ms. Clark said her response to the letter is: “We are working on it.” But she cautioned her government is trying to strike a balance between multiple, varying demands for how best to make investments to boost the province’s tech talent, and declined to comment on what measures to expect from her government.

“Taking into account all the advice we’ve received, sorting through and deciding which ones are doable and which ones will yield the most benefit up front is the process that we’re in now,” she said.

“Will it add up to $100-million over the whole? It could. Will it be in precisely the thing that maybe Ryan [Holmes of Hootsuite] wants or Bill [Tam, CEO of the BC Technology Association] wants or somebody else wants? I don’t know.”

Ms. Clark declined to offer further specifics, other than to say she wants to see 100 per cent of university students who are enrolled in technology-oriented programs to be offered co-op program options. When asked whether the government would have to provide financial incentives to achieve that, she said “that’s part of what we’re working with [universities] on.”

British Columbia has emerged as a leader among the Canadian provinces in getting behind its technology sector by introducing an innovation agenda in the past year that includes funding $100-million for venture capital and introducing computer coding to the grade-school curriculum.

“We’re trying to look at this in a very fulsome way,” said Amrik Virk, Minister of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services, noting that several of his cabinet colleagues are responsible for parts of the innovation strategy. “We’re breaking down the barriers within government so everybody is delivering on this mission.”

The Premier’s support for a sector with 92,700 employees in B.C. – more than the mining, oil and gas and forestry sectors combined – and which is helping to fuel the best provincial economic growth in the country is likely to form part of her campaign strategy heading into an expected election next year. She’s also hoping it will offset other disappointments, including delays in the development of the liquefied natural gas industry, controversial pipeline proposals and concerns and controversies related to Vancouver’s overheated housing market.

It’s still relatively early days in the rollout of the innovation strategy.

Earlier this month Advanced Education Minister Andrew Wilkinson announced $500,000 in funding to expand a pilot program to offer short-term computer coding courses to nine public postsecondary institutions. The government has also committed $6-million to train schoolteachers so they can in turn teach students to code.

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