Nfld. & Labrador

MUN hopes new artificial intelligence hub could grow the next Verafin

The tech sector in Newfoundland and Labrador is growing, but companies are dealing with a shortage of highly skilled labour.

Growing sector struggling with labour shortage

From left, TechNL CEO Florian Villaume, MHA Bernard Davis, Memorial University president Vianne Timmons, and MP Seamus O'Regan pose during a photo op at the announcement of MUN's new Centre for Artificial Intelligence on Friday. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

If we're lucky they won't be building Skynet, but Memorial University is hoping students at its new Centre for Artificial Intelligence fill a talent gap in Newfoundland and Labrador's tech industry. 

The school is launching three new one-year graduate programs, in software engineering, artificial intelligence and data science — all beginning in September, and all already full.

"We had oversubscribed applications. We have full admissions for September, and waiting lists," said MUN president Vianne Timmons at Friday's announcement, on the fifth floor of the university's new $100-million science building.

The undeveloped space will eventually be home to the new $2-million technology education hub, with both the provincial and federal governments, and the school itself, splitting the cost.

Some of that money will pay for four new faculty members to teach at the artificial intelligence centre.

The three programs combined can take 155 students, and Timmons said most of the people who've enrolled are international students.

Pointing to local success stories such as Verafin, which was bought by Nasdaq for $2.75 billion US in 2020, Timmons said they "want our homegrown students to graduate and work in this province and raise their families in this province — and there are opportunities."

The province's tech sector includes more than 200 companies and 6,500 workers. The government is expecting those companies will add thousands of more jobs in the next few years, and at Friday's announcement TechNL CEO Florian Villaume called the industry's growth in Newfoundland and Labrador "explosive."

But he said those companies are struggling with a labour shortage.

"I spoke with many companies, and 86 per cent of them report they're having [challenges finding] talent, so this is a contribution to solve that problem," he said.

Timmons agreed.

"We are answering that call for talent. Not only with these new graduate programs, but we've doubled the number of undergraduate computer science students," she said.

Timmons said MUN plans to start "heavily" recruiting computer science undergrad students in Toronto and other major cities.

Villaume said work on artificial intelligence could help the N.L. tech sector keep up with the rest of the country.

"A lot of companies outside the province are betting on that technology to automatize some of their processes, to get more insight, and many more applications," he said, adding Newfoundland and Labrador could soon be "more competitive with provinces outside the island."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Terry Roberts

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