Help wanted: tech firms scramble for talent

WATERLOO, ONT.— From Monday's Globe and Mail

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Down the street from Research In Motion Ltd., (RIM-T12.990.372.93%) where a new CEO is firing senior managers at a firm whose growth has stalled, hundreds of smaller technology firms are having the exact opposite problem: Growing too fast, they can’t find enough people to hire.

In the Kitchener-Waterloo area, deep within the technology ecosystem that blossomed as RIM grew into a global giant, companies are struggling to fill roles even as their growth helps anchor the region's reputation as an expanding high-tech hub. Some are large firms experiencing the dramatic growth that accompanies global expansion; others are small outfits that require extremely specific expertise. What they have in common is that they operate in exploding industries, like mobile applications, that barely existed a few years ago.

As a result, local technology firms and community groups are teaming up to build a regional hub that would benefit every company here by pulling in more people. But companies, individually, are also getting extremely creative with their workplace and hiring practices - building gyms, catering two daily meals, offering unlimited vacation and huge cash incentives - in ways that could hold lessons for others hiring in tight talent markets.

At Kik, a startup with sealed-off software programming "war-rooms," big-screen TVs controlled by iPhones and oversized post-it notes stuck to the wall, Erika Podlovics is trying desperately to calm her five-month-old puppy, Wellington.

Wellington the puppy has accompanied Ms. Podlovics to work. As the 24-year-old CEO, Ted Livingston, looks on, Ms. Podlovics lets the dog, which has been ill lately, out of a cage and hands him a stuffed toy snake.

Bringing a recovering pet to work is just one of the perks of working here. One of the other perks for employees is having two free meals each work day, catered by the upscale bar Wildcraft, which is just across the street. Kik is also putting in a gym, even though it only has 25 employees,

"If you want to compete at the global level, you're going to have to spend the money to build that culture," Mr. Livingston says.

Last year, nearly 300 new companies formed in the region, creating roughly 450 jobs at various startups, according to Communitech, a local group that represents about 800 technology companies in the region. There have also been about 1,000 tech jobs created at medium-to-large tech firms over the last three years, a period that has seen 531 new companies established here. But those companies are now growing, fast, and a "conservative estimate" is that there are roughly 1,300 unfilled tech positions locally, says Communitech's CEO, Iain Klugman. Even RIM, which laid off 11 per cent of its work force, is still hiring.

Mr. Klugman's group has been hitting the road, reaching out to about 20,000 local high school students and encouraging them to study science and engineering. They have also done recruitment events across the country with local companies, as well as on-campus events.

Desire2Learn, a fast-growing e-learning company here that has offices around the world, is giving out around $75,000 in prize money to programmers who develop applications for its platform. John Baker, the firm's president and CEO, also recently gave 140 of his R&D staff an entire week off to work on whatever they wanted to - and then integrated some of what they came up with into the product lineup. In addition to the more-traditional cash prizes and paying people $500 a year not to drive to work, they also have chili cook-offs. Currently, there are about 90 job openings and the company expects to hire 250 people this year.

Lately, Mr. Baker has leveraged the company's mission with potential employees, pulling in those from Google and elsewhere because he says Desire2Learn wasn't simply trying to profit from technology, but had broader aspirational goals for changing society. "We've been able to attract some great talent, like [former RIM chief financial officer] Dennis Kavelman," Mr. Baker says.

At times, it makes more sense to pull in high-quality employees who may not even have the right skills for the job: Ramy Nassar, a former RIM executive who has done hiring for Toronto-based Myplanet Digital, says they have run four-week courses for new employees that cost the company about $1,000 a day. "We'll match any offer from Google or Facebook," Mr. Nassar says.

For a local company but global giant like RIM, the problems are a bit different. Many local programmers say they don't want to work there because of RIM's stuffy work culture, but some go as far as attributing a talent shortage to RIM's aging buildings - bought during big expansions, but largely seen as bland and uninspiring.

For slightly smaller firms in larger cities, like Toronto's Endloop Mobile, the fight for fresh talent can still be immensely frustrating, a sign that the problem is not Waterloo's alone. Kerry Morrison, Endloop's CEO, now stresses their company's "anti-corporation" stance by working out of a house-office, offering unlimited vacation time, stacking the house with breakfast and dinner food, and getting set to offer in-house yoga classes and comprehensive medical coverage - despite the fact that the firm has only six full-time employees. Like others, they are investigating global satellite offices to draw from wider talent pools.

"Finding talent is the No. 1 issue we at Endloop, and every other company I talk to, is facing in 2012 - it's ridiculous right now how hard it is to find people," Mr. Morrison says, who notes he would hire three or four developers tomorrow if he could find any. "Frankly it's the only thing that keeps me up at night."