Got a shortage of talented hires? Build your own pipeline

When institutions weren’t turning out people with the skills she needed, Mandy Gilbert just built a better school

Office worker working two keyboards at once

(Illustration by Miguel Montaner)

This is one in a series of profiles of the PROFIT 500—Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies. For more, go to

Mandy Gilbert knows what employers want when they contact her staffing and recruitment firm in search of promising job candidates. But lately, she’s had a tough time delivering it.

Her Toronto-based company, Creative Niche, specializes in employment opportunities in technology, media and marketing—fast-evolving sectors that increasingly rely on a broad range of digital skills. And many of those skills aren’t being taught by the programs currently offered by vocational schools and colleges across Canada, Gilbert says. “There is a significant gap between what schools are offering and what people need in the field. A lot of the programs really aren’t keeping up.”

Holes in her talent pool included smart digital designers and marketers, people with user-experience (UX) expertise, and skilled project managers who have actually worked on real-world challenges and not just performed outdated textbook exercises. To find candidates for the jobs employers were trying to fill, Gilbert needed to find a new talent pipeline. Or build her own.

She chose the latter option, teaming up with Colin Mansell, managing partner at Vancouver web development firm Drive Digital, to create a new school aimed at bridging the existing skills gap.

Red Academy, which opened in Vancouver in July, bills itself as a tech school “taught by the industry, for the industry,” specializing in coding, web development, UX and product design and digital marketing. Courses range from 12-week full-time intensive programs (priced at $7,995) to shorter part-time evening courses directed at professionals looking to update their skills.

To shape and vet the curriculum, the school has signed up a number of industry partners, including Telus, Hootsuite and Live Nation—ideally, these companies will also consider Red Academy grads for available positions, though the program doesn’t guarantee employment. Participants do present their project-based work, however, at a student showcase that takes place each session, attended by the industry partners. About 50 students signed up for the first round of courses at the academy, which is based in a 5,000-square-foot office space in the city core (maximum capacity is 45 full-time and 100 part-time students).

“We’re really trying to redefine education,” says Gilbert. (The name Red comes from the first three letters of “redefine.”) “It really needs to be disrupted.”

With a burgeoning tech industry that’s expected to grow by more than 15,000 jobs over the next four years, Vancouver makes the ideal location for the first Red Academy, but Gilbert says she and Mansell hope to take the concept beyond B.C. and open locations in other major Canadian cities. Toronto is the next likely candidate, and the founders are also exploring international markets.

In addition to teaching technical skills, Gilbert and her staff are integrating training to help job candidates score gigs. “We talk to students about things like what a successful interview looks like.” she says. “We know what makes a candidate good and what makes a candidate great. With Red Academy, we’re basically trying to build the perfect candidate.”