Monday, October 06, 2008

War for Talent: Pittsburgh and Vancouver

Much has been made of Microsoft's Richmond office in British Columbia. Talent is supposed to stream to Canada because of the clunky immigration system in the United States. While Vancouver is still waiting for the windfall, Pittsburgh should pay close attention to its emerging competitor:

On the boldly named Great Northern Way, just southeast of downtown Vancouver nestled in an light industrial area, four postsecondary institutions are dreaming of a real estate play that will underpin a digital media hub populated by students, businesses and artists.

The project began in 2002, when Finning International Inc. donated 7½ hectares of land abutting the rail yards on Industrial Avenue to four schools: the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design and the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

Today, 50 students are working on their master's degrees in digital media, with the first graduating class set for spring.

Ten years from now, if all goes well, the project's backers hope to have at least 500,000 feet of residential space among a total potential of 3-million square feet, which would include about 400,000 square feet of academic space for about 1,000 students.

The area would also add much-needed commercial space in the heart of Vancouver.

Lack of space - and high prices for the small amounts available - has been a deterrent for expanding businesses.

"We've looking at shovels in the ground in three to four years," said Brad Foster, a spokesman at Great Northern Way Campus Ltd.

Vancouver is a major global centre for digital media, a sector best known for video games and one that includes many specific fields such as digital animation and special effects for film.

The city's available talent, and the mix of skills from computer engineering to art and design, recently drew Seattle's successful Big Fish Games Inc. to Vancouver to open its first office outside its home city, finding 4,500 square feet in Vancouver's fashionable downtown neighbourhood of Yaletown.

Big Fish, which employs 310 workers in Seattle and plans to add 30 in Vancouver by the end of next year, spent three years weighing options around the world on where to open its first satellite office.

"We're focused on getting the right people, rather than a lot of people," said Jeremy Lewis, a long-time Goldman Sachs managing director who is chief executive officer of Big Fish, which in September raised $83-million (U.S.) in its first round of financing with institutional investors.

Might Vancouver be able to lure graduates from Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Program? As the above article makes clear, expensive cost of living has put a cap on Vancouver's growth. The area is a wonderful place to live if you have a job and can afford it. The competition for talent can run either way. Might Pittsburgh be able to lure graduates and companies from Vancouver thanks to the low cost of living?

I think Pittsburgh is in a much better position to be the bigger player in this industry, namely on the strength of CMU. Both Vancouver and Pittsburgh can lay claim to important links to Los Angeles, but Pittsburgh has the more mature tech economy. If Pittsburgh start ups can exhaust local talent production, then Vancouver would be a good place to start hunting for labor.

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