Nfld. & Labrador·UNDECIDED

Voters are worried about jobs — here's one industry that's hiring

The tech sector employs nearly 4,000 people in Newfoundland and Labrador, but insiders say that number could be much higher.

Thousands work in the tech sector, but insiders say there's a talent shortage in N.L.


Adam Keating is gripped by what's going on around us. 

We're sitting in a Grade 4 classroom at Vanier Elementary in St. John's. There's me, Keating, co-founder of the software startup CoLab, and Kendra MacDonand, CEO of Canada's Ocean Supercluster.

We're meeting here because the students in this class are learning about tech and innovation, the same topic we're talking about. 

Keating — OK, all three of us — are curious about what these kids are up to. They are completely uninterested in our three TV cameras and the complex set of lights suddenly erected in their classroom to film CBC's series, Undecided.

How can N.L. grow its tech sector? Insiders have some advice

What could possibly be so captivating?

As we chat, the students build websites, design 3D-printed ornaments, construct robotic Lego cars and put together a machine that tests soil moisture in their classroom garden.

A lot has changed since I was in Grade 4.

Keating, who started university less than a decade ago, said much has changed even since then. 

Students in Mme. Hudson's Grade 4 class at Vanier Elementary in St. John's experiment with technology, building websites, wiring machines and powering robots. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

"I had no idea this was even an option," he said of his chosen career. 

"These kids will be ahead of other fourth-graders in other places."

Keating and MacDonald say tech is growing fast in Newfoundland and Labrador. According to industry group NATI, there are 3,990 people in this province working in tech and the sector generates $1.6 billion in revenue annually. 

On Tuesday, Keating's company announced plans to double in size by the end of the year. 

Despite this province's high unemployment rate (11.5 per cent in March), Keating will almost certainly have to recruit outside of Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Adam Keating is CEO and co-founder of CoLab Software, based in St. John's. Earlier this week, the company announced plans to double the size of its team by the end of 2019. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

"There's a talent shortage in the technology sector here," he said. 

Employers who need to fill jobs and people who need jobs — surely there is a way to marry the two. According to MacDonald, it starts with understanding at the political level. 

"We have seen in other jurisdictions that where you have a tech-savvy leader, that really drives the conversation," she said. 

Why here?

In the age of cloud computing, St. John's is as good a city as any to set up shop. No need to worry about traditional barriers like iced-in ferries, stormy weather or expensive shipping costs. 

"Don't underestimate the quality of place," MacDonald said. "There is a tremendous quality of life here, people want to be here."

Keating has actually worked in Silicon Valley, but chose to move home. His logic: a startup is one-in-a-million in California. 

Here, there's a tight-knit community. 

The Grade 4 students were less interested in the CBC TV crew in their classroom and more focused on their tech projects. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

"People just truly want to help you succeed. So starting something's actually pretty easy here in Newfoundland. Getting to the next stage is where the help needs to come in."

Help comes in the form of buy-in, MacDonald believes. 

If government chooses to work with small startups. If schools teach coding and Memorial University expands its offerings in the field. If local businesses hire Newfoundland and Labrador companies to build their websites. 

"Buy-in starts with understanding,"  she said. "A real understanding of what the opportunity is both for government … and the more traditional industries."

Read more stories from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Bailey White

CBC News

Bailey White is the producer of the St. John's Morning Show, on CBC Radio One.