After BlackBerry, what’s next for Waterloo?

Despite the uncertainty that’s dogged BlackBerry throughout its decline, Waterloo, Ont. Mayor Brenda Halloran says the city the company calls home – and the region around it – is more than ready to absorb any near-term losses and move on.

“Waterloo has a unique and diverse ecosystem like no other Canadian city,” she said. “As one of the world’s top ‘intelligent communities’, Waterloo boasts a knowledge economy that is globally recognized and is home to many major employers, global think-tanks, the country’s leading finance and insurance companies and world renowned post-secondary institutions.”

A manageable challenge

Waterloo, long known as Canada’s Technology Triangle or, more loosely, Silicon Valley North, may be struggling with the near-term challenge of absorbing 4,500 soon-too-be laid-off BlackBerry employees – on top of earlier waves of affected staff – but the CEO of Communitech, the region’s tech hub, says it isn’t anything the community can’t handle.

“I think in the near term we have our work cut out for us, and we need to do everything we can to try and redeploy the talent coming out of BlackBerry,” says Iain Klugman. “But in the long term, we’ve got some really positive momentum. We still have a bunch of major anchor tenants, like OpenText and COM DEV. We’ve got a bunch of up-and-coming mid-size firms like Desire2Learn. And then we’ve had 500 startups in 2013 alone.

“We’ve got a good kind of mix that makes for a healthy ecosystem,” he adds. “The challenge is really going to be absorbing that talent in the short-term

Communitech, which opened three years ago and has since hosted 15,000 visitors from around the world, set up the Tech Jobs Connex program to help earlier waves of laid-off BlackBerry employees transition into their next career phase. The program provided career counselling, workshops, and focused, individualized support. Mayor Halloran says approximately two-thirds of affected BlackBerry employees took part in the program, and 75 per cent of them found work.

“With Waterloo’s diverse community, along with our strong and growing start-up culture,” said Halloran, “we have seen the trend of those affected being absorbed back into the community.”

Raising the bar

Klugman says as the hub prepares for the next wave of clients, they’re assessing program performance and improving their approach.

“We’re actually just in the process of coming up with a whole new raft of ideas,” he said. “We’ve done a bunch of stuff in the past and we’ve learned some things. I think we’ve forgotten how scary it is when you come out of a job and you might have been working in an organization for five or 10 years. We need to make sure we’re dealing with the social side or the personal side of the process.”

Klugman says some of the improvements could involve relocating entire teams from BlackBerry into new organizations to preserve and leverage both the collaborative environment and the technology they might have been working on.

“We’ve got to do a better job at making sure that we know every single person who’s looking for work and what they can offer so that we can efficiently match them to the opportunities that exist,” said Klugman. “We’re really trying to get more intentional and more involved in the person we’re helping to redeploy.”

Klugman says partnership and collaboration are key factors that differentiate Waterloo from other communities.

“The difference in this community is we’re aggressive and we’re competitive and we don’t like leaving things to chance,” he said. “We think that we can probably play some role in determining the fate of our community, and we’re going to bust a gut trying.”


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