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‘The time is now’: How Nova Scotia’s tech industry is booming

Click to play video: 'Rise of digital sector forcing N.S. schools to adapt' Rise of digital sector forcing N.S. schools to adapt
WATCH: The digital sector is booming, especially in Nova Scotia. Despite being home to more than 25,000 digital employees, companies and organizations are struggling to fill tech roles. – Jul 9, 2022

Tucked behind shops inside Bedford, N.S.’s Sunnyside Mall is RedSpace, a software company employing around 300 people and helping millions kick back and relax.

“If you’ve watched shows, movies, sports and news on a digital device from some of the more popular streaming platforms on the market, there’s a good chance you’ve used some RedSpace technology,” said founder and CEO Mike Johnston.

The business has evolved over its 22 years of operation, but one thing has remained the same: its need for more tech talent.

“We’ve arguably been short-staffed for most of the life of the company,” said Johnston.

“There’s a global shortage, and we certainly feel that, but I think in some ways it provides a natural throttle to an industry that needs to grow responsibly as well as aggressively.”

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More than 1,300 information and communications technologies companies and organizations operate out of Nova Scotia.

Nova Scotia is also home to more than 25,000 tech employees working in the $2.5-billion digital sector.

“Our ability to do our work here and export to the world has never been stronger,” said Johnston.

Read more: ‘Everything is just on fast-forward’ How Halifax became a Canadian tech hub

“The time is now and the future is really bright for the digital industry to really be a transformational part of our economy, and it certainly shows no signs of slowing down.”

But with most businesses in all sectors moving to digital plans, it’s meant businesses like RedSpace have had to battle it out in a war for tech talent.

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“If you see talent, you gotta grab that talent and you gotta find a way to get those people here,” said Luke DeWitt, the director of web services for RedSpace.

“I always joke with my wife and with other people here. We could hire 10, 15 people today and we would probably be looking for five to 10 more tomorrow.”

Here We Code

The growth in the sector is not lost on the provincial government.

Last year, it announced a $16.8-million investment, which was dispersed among four Nova Scotia universities to enhance their computer science programs.

Dalhousie University received just over $13 million and used some of that to launch the Here We Code campaign: an opportunity to celebrate the industry’s growth thus far, and identify where improvements can be made.

“The key thing that drives tech — what really limits the growth of a tech company — is the availability of talent, it’s the human capital,” said Andrew Rau-Chaplin, Dalhousie’s dean in the Faculty of Computer Science.

“So long as we’re relatively better than the next jurisdiction, we will continue to grow. And I think that we’ve shown that we can.”

Rau-Chaplin said the faculty is now in the process of doubling its staff, adding 50 new faculty members over the next five years.

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Seven years ago, Rau-Chaplin said the Faculty of Computer Science graduated roughly 700 students. Today, the student body has more than tripled, with more than 2,200 students enrolled.

“And you go, ‘Wow, that’s getting pretty large,’ but the appetite for folks with computing skills is growing even faster,” he said.

“We’re in a moment where the demand for computer scientists and the range of possibilities and the kind of lifestyles that a background that computing offers has just exploded.”

Read more: ‘Significant moment’ as Nova Scotia’s population surpasses 1 million

Halifax has become one of the fastest growing cities in Canada, and it’s also become one of the hottest tech hubs.

“One of the reasons that we’re one of the fastest growing cities is tech,” Rau-Chaplin said. “If you looked at it (tech) in terms of exports, I mean it might have been oil, lobsters and then just nipping at the tail of those lobsters is digital.”

New recruitment opportunities

This year alone, RedSpace received around 3,000 resumes, conducted roughly 500 interviews and hired 80 new employees.

“During COVID, there was a ton of demand … people were sitting at home, they needed something to do, TV, entertainment is a great option,” said DeWitt.

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While COVID-19 has made for a much busier workplace, it’s also allowed for new international recruitment opportunities.

“It used to be the vast majority (of staff) – 90 per cent or more – were here in Halifax. That’s certainly been shifting and probably will continue to do so,” said Johnston, adding they now have employees in a dozen countries around the world.

“We sponsor a lot of employees and their families who want to immigrate to Canada — we’ve been happy to grow the Canadian economy in that regard — but it’s an increasing trend that we’re trying to find the best world-class talent wherever it sits and find a way to work together.”

And while importing talent is an option, he applauds the work being done in Nova Scotia to bolster the industry, saying a scale-up in an industry like digital is a “wise investment.”

“I love that there’s a focus on trying to build a better, more diverse workforce. I think that aligns with the future direction of where Nova Scotia and Canada wants to be,” said Johnston.

“Digital has an ability to really align and be out in front of that, to be a change agent in those forces and I’m excited to be a part of it.”

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