Why technology jobs matter

My `Back to school’ article talked about a survey of McMaster Computing & Software students that showed that while few stayed in Hamilton to work in industry after graduation, over 90% of the students would be open to staying in Hamilton given job opportunities competitive with those in other cities. Rick Calder wrote a `Hamilton deserves better’ article talking about bringing higher-paying technology jobs to Hamilton – the type of jobs that could retain these students. One of the comments on that article was fairly pessimistic about the prospects for technology jobs in Hamilton, citing healthcare and materials research as what the government has “positioned” for Hamilton, and claiming that cities like Hamilton have to focus on specific sectors.

I disagree with the point made and the thinking behind it, but it’s a thoughtful point of view that I think others may share. Why do technology jobs even matter for Hamilton? Why can’t we just rely on the government to choose what our economy is going to look like by putting money into a few specific sectors?

 

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First off, yes, these jobs are great to have. But they won’t be enough to fill the jobs gap. Right now about 50% of Hamiltonians are employed in precarious employment situations. Part-time or full-time work with no job security or benefits, or temporary, contract or casual work. These McJobs aren’t healthy for individual household stress levels or the community as a whole (e.g. participation in volunteer work drops). As the manufacturing sector has declined, the amount of precarious employment in the region has increased by 50 per cent in the past 20 years. We’ve got 90,000 below the poverty line and Code Red neighbourhoods. It’s great for us to have 450 jobs at the downtown health campus or the 50-90 jobs at CAMNET (apparently, not sure about the source). But what about the rest of the city?

I’ll say it again just to be clear: these jobs really are great to have. I’m not meaning to criticize them. But they only put a nice dent in the overall problem. How do we fill the rest of the void?

Technology jobs must be a big part of any solution. Technology jobs should no longer be thought of as a distinct and individual “sector”. Technology is now the driving force behind the job growth of many, many sectors. That’s because software is eating the world, as discussed by Marc Andreesen,

“My own theory is that we are in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swathes of the economy. More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services—from movies to agriculture to national defense.”

In fact, 71% of STEM jobs created between now and 2018 are projected to be in computing. How can Hamilton expect to fix the jobs problem without utilizing the most pertinent solution?

 

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Former Pittsburgh mayor Tom Murphy gave a talk at SuperCrawl about the revitalization of his city, and in The Spectator article covering the talk the importance of technology jobs is mentioned:

“Sixty per cent of its population once worked in manufacturing. That is now 10 per cent, while 40 per cent work in technology.”

I don’t think anyone would suggest that it’s somehow a bad thing to invest in sectors like health care, education, advanced manufacturing and/or materials research. Pittsburg’s Universities and hospitals are also cited as being pivotal to its recovery. But the fact that technology has become the new manufacturing is not something we have any control over. It’s a massive trend that’s reshaping employment in cities much like ours.

Hamilton can only choose whether to swim with the economic currents, or against them.

 

  • brundlefly

    Thanks for this Kevin, I couldn’t agree more.

    There has been a large influx of the smaller hungrier firms moving here, but I think now ( with the amazing spaces available at the reasonable price points for local office space ) the larger software firms need to seriously think about setting up shop in the city.

    Our local Economic Development and the City need to seriously think about offering ( and seriously promoting ) some serious benefits to these types of corporations, in the form of tax breaks or hiring incentives.

    There is lots of eyes & ears outside the city waiting and watching what’s going to happen here. I hope the people in at the city and in charge of making it happen can get over their “lets focus on returning the manufacturing jobs” mentality and show a little forward thinking.

  • Anand Sinha

    Great article Kevin.

    The government works for us, they cannot be allowed to tell the city what sectors to focus our efforts.

    We the technology minded people of Hamilton MUST tell our local, provincial and federal governments that Hamilton IS a high-tech community, that we have software entrepreneurs, and that we have a growing community of artists and technology folks who are working together to bring about a change here.

    And if they don’t or won’t listen, WE must make this happen ourselves. All of the groups have to work together to reach that goal, and bring economic prosperity to this city.

  • EB

    I would just like to clarify my position on this matter Kevin. We can certainly disagree on the points, there is never anything wrong with constructive discussion.

    My original point was to address Rick’s post about attracting large IT firms (such as Microsoft) here via government lobbying (via tax breaks as an example). My counter to that was that government would not really be interested in such active promotion (at least in terms of throwing $$$ behind it). My claim was that its push for local funding would be on Hamilton’s strengths. In my opinion, lobbying for money at the provincial or federal level for large scale IT $$$$ would be a tall order. Because I don’t think that Hamilton will attract Microsoft’s next R&D centre does NOT mean that I am down on high-tech jobs in Hamilton or the prospect of a high-tech industry here.

    In your response to my comments in the original thread, you mentioned Desire2Learn, Hootsuite and Freshbooks as models for success. I totally agree with that, but these aren’t the type of multinational companies that Rick was referring to. When you talk about trying to attract Microsoft, IBM here…we are talking about a whole different ballgame. For the reasons I mentioned, mid-size cities have a distinct disadvantage in getting large IT corporations to build here from scratch or move from some other centre. Most of that growth is going to emerging economies anyways. Again that doesn’t mean that all is lost.

    Waterloo seems to be a success story that is commonly referenced. But even in that environment, government lobbying wasn’t directly responsible for large IT companies setting foot there. Cisco, Google and Sybase and Mcfee entered the region by purchasing startups. On the other hand, giants such as HP and Philips have tried setting up shop there and packed it in.

    My point is that large IT companies are not needed for Hamilton region to build a vibrant software industry. Good ideas and solid product implementations from small startups will attract talent and more companies over time. They need little government funding and are nimble enough to deal with volatile changes to the economic landscape. As you mentioned in another post Kevin, Hamilton’s strengths in materials and medicine have a big software/hardware side to them. If local companies can support these industries while venturing into other areas, there is no reason why Hamilton can’t compete.