​Tech Troubles: Windsor's tech sector lags behind province

Since 2010, the tech sector in Windsor-Essex shrank by 4 percent. Meanwhile the province's sector has thrived, growing by 29 percent.

Between 2010 and 2016, 133 tech jobs in Windsor-Essex disappeared

Employees with Alteris, a Detroit-based company that opted to open a second location in Windsor because it was cost-effective jurisdiction. (Sonya Varma/CBC News)

Blandine Fongue isn't a woman who gives up easily.

For the past 2 years, she's networked, hunted and hustled for work in Windsor's tech sector. 

Fongue has digital skills, technical knowledge and an impressive resume that includes a 13-year-stint at Nortel, but she's struggled in vain to land a senior tech position in Windsor and Essex County. 

The wages don't follow the skills that are requested.- Blandine Fongue

"It's nearly impossible," says Fongue.

"Most of the positions are junior positions and when you see a job that is kind of senior, the wages don't follow the skills that are requested. It's difficult to find a position where the skills and experience are valued for what it's worth." 

Blandine Fongue has technical skills and experience but has struggled to find a senior tech position in Windsor. (Sonya Varma/CBC News)

The disappearing tech jobs

Windsor's tech sector has high hopes, including dreams of working with Detroit to land Amazon's new headquarters, but it is struggling. From 2010 to 2016, 133 tech jobs vanished from the region, according to Workforce Windsor-Essex, which crunched data from Statistics Canada. 

Those lost jobs represent a contraction of four per cent compared to the booming 29 per cent growth enjoyed by Ontario's tech sector over the same period. 

Doug Sartori, a tech consultant and vocal champion of Windsor's tech community, called the backwards trend worrying. London has added 2,000 digital creative jobs over the past few years and Sartori wonders why Windsor hasn't done the same.

We have a skills problem and a wage problem.- Doug Sartori

"Everyone is experiencing job growth. I wouldn't call London an IT powerhouse, but they have made an effort and made an investment and had job growth in ICT (Information, Communication and Technology), " says Sartori, who also serves on the Workforce Windsor-Essex board.

"We graduate a couple hundred workers from college and university each year, but they'll leave if there's nothing to attract them here."

Lack of creative, senior positions

Anthony Garreffa graduated in 2008 from University of Windsor in Computer Engineering. He immediately landed work with a Windsor startup. For the first couple of years, Garreffa worked from the owner's kitchen table developing educational videos for the Ministry of Education. The company went on to make social games on Facebook.

Anthony Garreffa started his tech career in Windsor but says he had to move to Detroit to work on bigger projects and develop his skills. (Sonya Varma/CBC News)

"It was a great opportunity right out of school," says Garreffa. "I got to explore, fail, try and succeed." 

But, after 4 years, Garreffa grew bored. He wanted a bigger challenge and an opportunity to develop his skills. 

I was uncomfortable with being comfortable. And I was too comfortable.- Anthony Garreffa

"I was uncomfortable with being comfortable. And I was too comfortable. And I was kind of at the top as far as the tech expertise at that company. I realized I wanted a bigger community to be around," he says.

Garreffa left Windsor's tech sector for a job in Detroit. GM offered him a chance to develop software for vehicles — apps that drivers download into their cars. 

"So this was one of those mountain challenges I was looking for. I had some experiences building apps but that was like a whole new world and especially in the car and on the screen. And this idea that not a lot of people were doing it, that I was one of the few people that got to explore this new space was really exciting," says Garreffa.

Garreffa says he couldn't find that kind of opportunity in Windsor-Essex.

Detroit: Liability or leverage?

Sartori says Detroit doesn't need to be a liability, sucking tech talent from Windsor. Instead, he says, Windsor needs to leverage Detroit's proximity and market the advantages Windsor can offer.  He points to Detroit-based tech company Alteris as an example.

Three years ago, Alteris was looking to expand to a second location. Both Ann Arbor, Mich. and Windsor were in the running. Alteris went with downtown Windsor. Alteris co-owner Tim Connor says it just made financial sense. Windsor's rent and wages were less expensive than in Michigan and the relatively weak loonie provided another advantage.

Employees at Alteris, a tech firm in downtown Windsor.

"We took over a space, I think it was a restaurant; it had been sitting empty for 10 years," says Connor.

"We found a combination of the real estate pricing working for us and then the starting salaries and those that might be a little bit mature the salaries seem to be reasonable for how we have to you know make it work for us as a company." 

Connor says the company likely saves between 20 to 30 percent operating out of Windsor thanks to the exchange rate.

Future Forward, Amazon Dreams

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens says there a "media blackout" when it comes to the city's joint bid with Detroit to woo Amazon to the area. While he won't talk about it, Dilkens is clearly banking on Amazon to put Windsor's tech sector back on the map.

Amazon dreams aside, Workforce Windsor-Essex says there is reason for optimism. The agency has projections for the tech sector and says the tech community should add 165 jobs —  an increase of 5 percent — by 2020. That is still well behind provincial growth, but movement in the right direction. 

Employees with Alteris, a Detroit-based company that opted to open a second location in Windsor because it was cost-effective jurisdiction.

About the Author

Sonya Varma

Sonya Varma is a producer at CBC Windsor. Email her at sonya.varma@cbc.ca.