Alberta’s Hidden Talent Pool

Back in January of 2018, Amazon released its coveted shortlist of candidate cities for its second headquarters (HQ2). For weeks, Calgary Economic Development put their heart and soul into marketing our city.

It certainly got some attention. Sidewalk chalk, hockey game chants, and declarations of our bear-fighting prowess—we did it all.

But alas, Calgary did not end up making the shortlist for the HQ2 bid. Toronto ended up being the only Canadian city on the list.

Depending on who you talk to in the city, this was either a surprise or whatever the complete opposite is. What went wrong, though? We have a young average population, a high ranking on the livability index, and access to the mountains for every outdoor excursion you can dream of.

But despite a high quality of life and low cost of living, Calgary simply didn’t have enough tech talent to sustain 50,000 software engineering jobs. Toronto made a lot more sense in that respect; after all, between 2012 and 2017, Toronto created more tech jobs than Silicon Valley did.

Calgary just can’t compete. At least, not yet.

The unfortunate reality is that right now, Calgary has a thin pool of developer talent. I’ve met way more local startups looking for developers than vice versa. Fortunately, Calgary Economic Development and the University of Calgary are already working on fixing this. Unfortunately, we will likely not see the fruition of this work for at least a few more years.

A New Plan (or Four)

Last week, Calgary Economic Development published Calgary in the New Economy, a new economic strategy for the city. The Strategy spans four pillars, aimed at preparing Calgary for the digital revolution happening around us. One of these pillars revolves around talent, particularly around programs that promote science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM).

We’re already working on improving our computer developer talent (something that was always pretty thin in Alberta). That’s pretty great. But building a strong, sustainable economy means we need to train talent in every area of STEAM. Software engineering is only one piece of the economic diversification puzzle. We should also be nurturing industries to grow in the city beyond just energy, renewables, cleantech, and ICT.

Fortunately, we already have something else. Alberta has yet to tap into the full potential of another talent pool here. A community that’s been slowly growing for the past decade.

Genetic engineering.

Wait, We Have Talent Here?

Definitely! And here’s a secret: many of them are still in high school.

For years, the geekStarter program provided students with project-based, hands-on education in STEM. These included projects in synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and robotics. geekStarter is run by MindFuel, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting education in STEM.

High schoolers and undergraduate teams from across Alberta do their own research project, under the guidance of their teachers or professors. geekStarter supports them through mentorship and workshops. For those working in synbio, the program culminates in a province-wide competition called aGEM (the Alberta Genetically Engineered Machines competition), where the teams present their results to a panel of judges.

geekStarter teams usually end up participating in competitions like FIRST Robotics, BioMod, and—yes—iGEM.

And thanks to geekStarter, Albertan teams have done incredibly well at the iGEM competitions. The Universities of Alberta, Calgary, and Lethbridge have developed quite the reputation in Boston. Their presentations tend to gather large audiences, and the teams have a history of winning special prizes.

The high schoolers are no slouches, either. Many of them don’t have access to the same lab equipment as their university peers. Despite that, Alberta has been the only Canadian representation in the High School iGEM track ever since 2012.

(Don’t know about you, but at that age, I was much more concerned about video games, pizza, and vapid MSN Messenger chats than genetic engineering. And I was one of the keeners.)

geekStarter has been a strong supporter of early talent and training in Alberta. It’s great to see that so many people in the Calgary community are starting to work together to prepare the new generation for a tech-driven world. What’s important is that we continue to provide them with the resources, connections, and jobs.

Who’s in Boston this Year?

Six Alberta teams are heading to this year’s iGEM competition, starting on October 24th. In a special six-part series, I’ll cover what each of these teams have been doing this year:

Cover photo: The student teams of the 2018 aGEM competition. Photo credit: MindFuel

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