With its September unemployment rate standing at 12.6% and office space vacancies approaching 30%, Calgary is struggling to reinvent itself in a world accelerating beyond fossil fuels.
Critical to that success will be creating a homegrown talent pool of post-graduates schooled in the needs of a low-carbon world. But facing the collapse of the industry that fuelled their hometown’s rise, policy-makers in Calgary know that the city needs desperately to diversify—and that the work will be easier said than done, reports the Globe and Mail.
While city officials are looking to places like Houston for inspiration, they also know that what worked for that Texas metropolis—which is also a port—will not be as clearcut for a landlocked prairie city. And then there is the simple but daunting pressure of time: Houston has been intent on diversifying ever since the global price on crude collapsed in late 2014. By contrast, Calgary has not yet even settled upon a diversification strategy, though it is “looking to fill the gap with technology, agribusiness, and logistics companies,” notes the Globe.
That focus alone will not solve Calgary’s employment woes, however, as the work force the three sectors need is “a fraction of the size that [fossil] energy used to employ.”
While Houston’s fossil economy continues to survive—via heavy investments in the petrochemical industry, which, while battered by the pandemic, will not likely fall to it—the city’s “real edge has been its focus on high tech and life science sectors, exemplified by its ‘Innovation Corridor’ that runs between its downturn core and Rice University and the Texas Medical Center.”
Patrick Jankowski, researcher and senior vice-president of the Greater Houston Partnership, told the Globe that Houston “leans heavily” on institutions in that corridor to attract large-scale employers, putting their leaders “front and centre in economic development efforts.” This foregrounding of post-secondary firepower has paid off big time, with the likes of Google and Microsoft both recently opening up shop in the Texas oil town—and they’re not alone.
“The city has also attracted technology incubators such as Silicon Valley-based Plug and Play Tech Center and Massachusetts cleantech specialist Greentown Labs, which are cultivating a raft of start-ups,” writes the Globe.
For its part, Calgary learned a hard lesson about the value that Big Tech places on Big Academe when it lost its 2018 bid to host Amazon’s second headquarters to Arlington, Virginia, despite the city’s effort to present itself as a city with world-class quality of life. The reasons for the loss were made clear, explained, Calgary Economic Development CEO Mary Moran.
“They said, ‘Yeah we saw all that, but the reality is, when we looked at your talent pool, and we looked at the pipeline coming out of your post-secondaries, we could see that you didn’t have the right talent for dealing with industries like ours—but more importantly, dealing with industries like yours that are going to be hit with digital technology like a tsunami’.” While awash with experts in energy, Calgary is still a desert when it comes to the “software engineers, data scientists, coders, programmers, and project managers” necessary for the tech world to thrive.
Learning from its loss to Virginia, “Calgary has adopted a similar game plan to woo new businesses, by working with post-secondary institutions like the University of Calgary and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology to churn out graduates geared for work in the new economy,” the Globe writes. “It has also set up the Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund to support companies in sectors it has targeted in its diversification strategy.”
For Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first step toward an economic recovery is to sell the city as an innovative bastion of homegrown talent that is as good a place to raise a family as it is to build a business. That, he told the Globe, will require retraining and investment support from both the provincial and federal governments, as well as from abroad.
“We can’t think about transformation of the economy as something that will happen eventually,” he said. “We’ve got to be landing things now.”
Veteran Calgary oil and gas analyst Samir Kayande, who has embarked on his own personal quest to reinvent himself for the low-carbon age, said his hometown needs to show a “world-beating demonstrated competence” as a technology hub. But that won’t be an easy task, he added, noting that “when you lose an export industry, you cannot easily recreate the value that it brought in.”