When my wife and I decided to move back to Waterloo in 2009 we had a pretty easy choice. With a job offer on the table for her, and a community we knew well from our past stay as students, the choice was an easy one. It was made even easier by the fact that having spent several years living in Toronto and London, the cost of living in Waterloo seemed unbelievable by comparison.
Our easy decision, however, isn’t indicative of what most will consider. And as the region looks to incubate and grow successful companies, attracting talent will only grow as a priority.
Doing so, however, means competing against other clusters of economic activity that want nothing more than to attract the same talent. Forget about Silicon Valley or New York. Several Canadian cities are on the same path.
Take Ottawa for example. Like Waterloo, our capital city is home to one of Canada’s most robust tech clusters. Built on the foundations of major government and university research facilities, the city hosts some 1,900 technology companies and a cluster of masters and phd level talent that ranks tops in the country. And like Waterloo, the city’s economy has been forced to adjust from the fall from a once standout tech giant. While Blackberry has stabilized at a albeit fraction of its peak size, Nortel wasn’t so fortunate. Developing an ecosystem of growing companies to replace it and move forward has long been part of the city’s economic goal.
While in Ottawa earlier in the year I was presented with a rather striking sales pitch on the city and how it plans to attract the necessary talent to grow. It wasn’t just about jobs or housing though. Any city can offer that, they argued. Rather it was about what they viewed as their comparative advantage in the race for talent: life in and around the city. It was about what they considered the third leg of a talent attraction strategy that starts with work and housing but is incomplete without a focus on ‘play’.
Ranked as the second best place in Canada to raise a family, the city hosts two professional sports teams, 70 golf courses, over 1,000 parks, 600 kms of biking trails, 7 ski resorts and more than 200 kms of cross-country skiing trails. And there’s always that 8km long skating rink in town. You want culture? How about the National Galley, the National Arts Centre or the Museum of Civilization. The city hosts 14 museums and 31 art galleries. You want to get away? How about an airport with connections to every major centre in Canada and internationally. City officials also note that you’ll get an extra 200 hours of sunshine per year in Ottawa vs. Waterloo.
This all adds up to a pretty attractive package for the mobile talent that every growing tech cluster in Canada, let alone North America, wants to attract. And it frames the challenge that faces #kwawesome as our cluster of technology, manufacturing, financial services and other industries looking to grow.
We all know the merits of our three great post-secondary institutions, and we know how great some of our leading companies are. But in a relative competition for great talent that doesn’t already know of the benefits of living in KW, our sales pitch and development efforts need to focus as much on the play element that keeps people here once they visit.