Waterloo Wants You

Fast-growing community outgrows its labour pool.

Of all the problems a city can face, not having enough employees is a pretty good one to have – in the short term at least – as long as everything else seems to be running smoothly. It means the city's economic base is growing, a victim of its own success. But such a shortage will eventually turn away new businesses in search of larger labour pools. So when a group of 50 Waterloo, Ont.-area tech companies – some of them competitors with each other – realized there were some 800 job openings among them, they banded together with local government and industry associations and held their own Silicon Valley recruitment drive, featuring Molson Canadian beer, Dare maple cookies – and well-paying jobs aplenty.

It may seem strange that Waterloo businesses are begging for new recruits. After all, the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University both have well-respected programs that churn out grads by the thousands each year. Kitchener, one of the three cities that make up the region, was the fastest-growing economy in Q1 among 25 Canadian cities examined by CIBC World Markets. And the area has powerhouses such as Research in Motion Ltd., Open Text Corp. and Sun Life Financial Inc., along with a variety of nimble smaller companies.

But when it comes to attracting people – and businesses, for that matter – cities can do far less than most people think. For a business, most of the site selection factors that vary by geography, including labour costs and availability, land prices and energy costs, are market-driven. Government is really limited to taxation issues, such as setting property tax rates, and may be of some help in constructing a new road or interchange to speed up access. When it comes to attracting the best and brightest people, businesses are just as handicapped. There's always a place that can offer better weather, more prestige and higher salaries. And chances are, folks there are pretty happy where they are, so they need to be enticed.

It might sound corny, but what helps is giving potential recruits a warm welcome, says Howard Burton, executive director of Perimeter Institute, a theoretical physics research facility established by RIM co-founder Mike Lazaridis. In other words, make them feel like they have already found a new home. “You can't control the weather, the history and the fact we're not Princeton, Stanford or Harvard,” says Burton. “Everything that we can do, from food services to culture to a warm welcome to administrative assistants, is done to the best possibility we can so we can compete with these other places.”

Of course, it helps that Waterloo is only about an hour away from Toronto. Employees get relatively easy access to a large metropolitan centre with all its perks, while enjoying a higher standard of living, better infrastructure and a community that prides itself on being on the leading edge of public, health and land use policy. For example, 30 years ago, the region designated certain areas for development, essentially freezing urban sprawl on three sides. Greenfield development is mostly limited to the east side, closest to the airport and railway lands. It was a bold step, but Ken Seiling, regional chair of the Waterloo Region, believes reurbanizing existing areas will give the region enough growth potential for the next 30 to 50 years. Another project is the proposed light rail transit system, the first such major system in Ontario outside Toronto. “That is being built is partly as a people mover, but more importantly as a planning tool to protect quality of life, to ensure we can reurbanize without sprawl,” says Seiling.

By all accounts, the recruitment drive is working. More than 500 people attended the Canada Day event in Silicon Valley in late June, successful smaller events were held in Ottawa and Toronto, and web traffic to and participating companies has spiked. Communitech, a Waterloo technology trade association, even heard from a solider from Bosnia who learned of the program.

Both Seiling and Burton are unsure whether Waterloo's success can be replicated by all cities. Seiling says cooperation between the private and various public sectors has long been a strength of the area, which is home to roughly 450,000 people. Larger cities such as Toronto and Vancouver are perhaps too big to personalize the recruitment message, while smaller cities may not have the critical mass of quality, risk-taking leaders willing to sink their money into something interesting. “Our success has come out of a particular social, economic and cultural background in this community,” says Seiling. “I'm not trying to put down other areas, but if you traveled into York Region or Durham Region, you wouldn't have that existing mix or milieu for new businesses to move into.”

But it is possible. “It doesn't matter if you're Calgary, Nanaimo or Chicoutimi: if you can get together that combination of determined people who can innovate, great things can happen there, too,” says Burton. “If you were to take the four of five leaders here and move them somewhere else, there would be big trouble in this community.”