Nfld. & Labrador

Mount Pearl tech company looks outside province for skilled workers

Mount Pearl's Solace Power says it's just about exhausted the local market for skilled workers. It already has a team from around the world.

Technology Industries Association says students need to learn coding, be encouraged to study computer science

Michael Gotlieb, the CEO of Solace Power, says the company has exhausted the local market and will likely bring in future employees from outside Newfoundland and Labrador. (CBC )

A cutting-edge technology company in Newfoundland and Labrador expects to hire from outside the province in future because it can't find the kind of highly specialized skilled workers it needs here.

Solace Power in Mount Pearl is focused on wireless power. It has 31 employees there — the majority are local, but almost one-third are from other countries, ranging from China to Jordan to Germany.

It's an exciting, competitive field. Company CEO Michael Gotlieb says he'll be looking across Canada as well as internationally when new workers are needed. 

"I think we've already taken most of the local talent, especially the technical talent," said Gotlieb.

Gotlieb himself is an international employee. He's an American who splits his time between Mount Pearl and Chicago. 

'We're going to continue to build out here'

Solace Power acknowledges that wireless power is an emerging field that requires workers with very specific skills.

The company's latest prototype allows 35 watts of power to travel 100 millimetres without any wires in between.

That's more than enough juice to turn on the lights on an all-terrain vehicle. The company says the achievement is unmatched across the industry.

Solace Power says this prototype can send 35 watts of power across a 100-millimetre gap without any wires in between. (CBC )

There are numerous possible applications. Think about a medical cart that charges wirelessly when it's parked over certain floor tiles. In turn, medical devices recharge as they're placed on the cart. 

Or picture a soldier charging up the gear in his or her vest just by sitting on a chair that has a transmitter in it. The technology could also be used in furniture design, in office design, in cars and in the aerospace industry.

Boeing is a customer. Lockheed Martin has invested in Solace Power. Both the federal and provincial governments have approved some funding.

The company has moved from the start-up phase into the scale-up phase, meaning it's looking for customers — and the pressure is on.

"We're focused here, this is where it started, and we're going to continue to build out here," said Gotlieb. "However, we have to compete internationally and that's our intent."

Kids need to learn coding

It's one reason why NATI — the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Technology Industries — is pushing for young people to get more exposure to technology.

That includes introducing mandatory coding in the K-12 system, and encouraging more post-secondary students to major in computer science.

"If our companies can't find the people here, they're going to find the people from other parts of Canada," said Ron Taylor, the association's CEO.

The Brookfield Institute calculates the average 2015 salary in the tech sector in Newfoundland and Labrador at just under $72,000 a year.

Taylor said the shortage of skilled employees in the industry is not unique to this place — it's a Canada-wide issue.

Coding is the international language of how technology works.- Ron Taylor

He said the province needs to take action. The government has said it will take steps to improve technology skills within the public school system, but hasn't said how.

Taylor says it's essential to get every child in the public school system familiar with coding.

"Coding is the international language of how technology works," he said.

In Nova Scotia, coding classes are mandatory up to Grade 6. And they're mandatory in New Brunswick, as part of technology classes, between Grades 6 and 8.

"By putting coding in the K-12 system, we're not saying every student is going to become a computer tech or get into the technology sector. But we're giving every student the opportunity to choose," said Taylor.

He also wants to see more post-secondary computer science degrees. Last year, only 30 students who majored in that field graduated from Memorial University with bachelor's degrees in science.

'Black magic unattainable thing'

Newfoundlander Kris McNeil did computer science and math at Memorial University before going on to found Solace Power in 2007.

Today McNeil is a shareholder in the company but no longer involved in day-to-day operations.

What he started changed Mitch Chaulk's life. The young engineer moved back home to Newfoundland and Labrador from New Brunswick to work for the company in everything from project management to sales.

"Wireless power seemed like this black magic unattainable thing that people were doing here, were actually doing that. And I wanted to be a part of it," said Chaulk.

Engineer Mitch Chaulk moved back home to Newfoundland and Labrador from New Brunswick to work with Solace Power in Mount Pearl. (CBC )

Some of the international employees at the company studied at Memorial University before being recruited to work at Solace Power.

Chaulk likes the mix of local and international employees, saying the varying backgrounds mean members of the team offer different angles when engineering challenges arise.

One of the newest workers is an import who arrived in this province with a wealth of experience.

Max Rahm is originally from Germany, although he's more than familiar with Canada's tech industry.

He used to be in charge of product development with BlackBerry. 

Max Rahm started working at Solace Power six months ago. He's from Germany and has extensive experience at BlackBerry. (CBC )

Rahm has worked for Solace Power for the past six months and calls the technology there cool.

"It's very new stuff, which nobody in the world has." 

He likes the St. John's area, saying it reminds him of his home town in Germany.

Rahm said it's been a positive experience for him to work with people from many different cultures. 

Plan to double size of tech sector

Memorial Faculty of Business Administration professor Tom Cooper said a diverse group of employees in a tech company can offer advantages.

"They just have different perspectives and different ways of looking at problem and alternatively generating solutions as well," said Cooper. 

But NATI worries that once tech companies reach a certain size, they might relocate to other areas where it would be easier to find additional workers.

The group insists there needs to be a stronger focus on locals who are trained up. 

There are now 165 companies, and just under 4,000 working in the province's tech sector, and the group aims to double that within 10 years.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ramona Dearing has worked as a reporter, host and producer at CBC's St. John's bureau.

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