Canada’s IT workers resist U.S. pull

Sun worshippers might shun Canada because of its chilly winds and subzero temperatures. But IT professionals are understanding more and more that the Great White North is a land of warm and inviting corporate climates.

From promising up-and-comers to deep-pocketed industry stalwarts, Canada boasts an endless roster of homegrown businesses that have successfully attracted and retained world-class talent.

This has been an ongoing struggle and Canada’s proximity to the U.S. – home of lower capital gains tax rates, wealthier venture capital communities and higher temperatures – hasn’t helped. But the battle against brain drain has only prompted Canadian employers of IT professionals to create incentives that rival those of its neighbour.

Access to groundbreaking technologies, a healthy balance between work and play, progressive corporate cultures and financial stability are the main enticements that have enabled Canadian companies to offset the appeal of heading south.

Just ask Mike Lapenna, chief technology officer at CollectiveBid Systems Inc. in Toronto. Lapenna said he has managed to lure IT talent to the two-year-old start-up from multinational corporations, including Bank of Montreal, Merrill Lynch Canada Inc., Deloitte & Touche LLP and Nortel Networks Corp.

It’s easy to see why. CollectiveBid Systems’ flagship product, BondMatch, promises to make North America’s multi trillion-dollar bond market as popular as the world’s stock exchanges by overhauling the way bonds are bought and sold.

Offering employees the chance to develop groundbreaking technology has also enabled Advanced Information Technologies Corp. (AIT) to strengthen its IT ranks. Ottawa-based AIT develops products to authenticate individuals, passports and other travel documents.

Although the company has long offered perks such as the weekly distribution of chocolates and on-site power-napping rooms, it’s AIT’s potential to help curb airborne terrorism that renders the company an employer with a worthy agenda.

“Since Sept. 11, with the world’s attention on travel and border security, there’s an increased sense of company pride because we know we can help. It’s a real motivator for our employees to be part of a team working on real solutions for real problems,” said Alan Boate, CTO at AIT.

There’s also no discounting the importance of a healthy corporate culture. It’s for this reason that Sierra Systems Group Inc., a Vancouver-based management consulting and systems integration firm, has gone to great lengths to abolish any signs of bureaucracy.

The company’s business cards don’t feature job titles. The CEO’s cell phone number is in the hands of senior managers and entry-level employees alike. And it’s not uncommon to find a new hire supervising a project team of industry veterans.

“Our basic management philosophy is, ‘Hire good people, make sure they know what to do and then get out of their way’ – no peering over their shoulders or micromanagement,” says David Smithers, director of knowledge management at Sierra Systems.

Paycheque Still Matters

For every IT professional wishing to exchange red tape for unlimited freedom, personal accountability and a sense of ownership, there’s a job candidate intent on finding financial stability in these days of economic uncertainty.

It’s a reality that has greatly benefited Montage-DMC eBusiness Services in Edmonton. Following acquisitions in June 2000 and May 2001, the e-business service provider now forms the flagship e-business arm of Toronto-based AT&T Canada Inc., one of the country’s largest national broadband business services providers and local exchange carriers. And in today’s marketplace, having an 800-pound gorilla as a parent company is a huge draw for IT professionals whose start-up stock option packages proved fruitless.

“With the turmoil that has shaken the IT world over the past 18 months, employees are looking for organizations that offer both reliability and stability,” said Peter Lui-Hing, CTO at Montage-DMC. “Our affiliation with AT&T Canada certainly enhances our ability to provide these characteristics.”

Nor can Montage-DMC be accused of being a stodgy industry stalwart. Unlike its by-the-book competitors, Montage-DMC fosters a sense of family, thanks to its beer fridge, casino nights, skiing trips and games rooms.

The chance to partake in the overhaul of time-tested financial systems, access to technology that promises to ensure public safety, the promise of work-life balance, a hierarchy that allows for advancement, the backing of an industry behemoth – they are all distinguishing features of top employers.

Richard Yerema, editor of Canada’s Top 100 Employers 2002, agreed, saying many of the employers making their lists are the ones running these types of programs.

“People don’t just move for a bigger paycheque. There have to be other incentives. Flexible hours, benefits – many companies focus on the broader picture.

“It’s not enough to say we pay enough, and don’t care about anything else,” said Yerema, from Mediacorp Canada Inc.’s Toronto office.

However, there are no free rides in today’s tough labour market. Thanks to Canada’s decreased productivity levels, massive layoffs, weak currency and corporate restructuring efforts, tickets to the top of the corporate ladder are now earned through hard work, long hours and unwavering dedication.

– With files from Victoria Berry