Saskatchewan IT group points out provincial image problem

Saskatchewan’s high-tech firms may employ thousands of employees, but that’s not enough to convince potential customers in central and Atlantic Canada to take advantage of its products and services, according to a study released Monday.

As part of its strategic action plan, the Saskatchewan Advanced Technology Association (SATA) released a state-of-the-industry report that showed less than 1,000 firms had gross sales of $5.1 billion, employed about 27,000 people and paid them a combined $1.5 billion in 2004. SATA, which formed about five years ago, will post the entire report on its Web site on Wednesday.

Greg Sutton, SATA’s executive director, said the association hopes the report will highlight the impact IT products and services have on the province and to focus its efforts as it works with economic development authorities to sustain future growth. 

“For years, Saskatchewan was known as the greenbasket or the bread basket,” he said. “The reality does not fit the perception.”

The image problem is particularly acute in Ontario and the Maritimes, which purchase only 16 per cent of the 54 per cent of IT products and services created in Saskatchewan but sold outside the province. Western provinces such as British Columbia and Alberta, meanwhile, purchase 39 per cent, Sutton said. TechAction, SATA’s plan, is taking these issues into account.

“We looked at current focus areas of everything our members are working on and refocused them into 22 action items we could accomplish. One of those is branding of Saskatchewan as a centre of technology excellence,” he said. “We have mentor networks, newly formed angel investor networks, university research and 90 different programs and services.”

The SATA report was co-financed by Western Economic Diversification Canada as well as Saskatchewan Industry and Resources, whose spokesman Greg Urbanoski said wanted to help the local industry get a better grasp of the challenges it has to meet.

“In order to come up with a game plan, you need a baseline to start with,” he said. “The ball’s in their court in terms of what specific things their members might want or need support on.”

Sutton said Saskatchewan firms have a history of self-reliance, with most personal funds making up 44.7 per cent of financing in the first two years of operation. After that, personal funds diminish to 14.6 per cent on average as commercial institutions pick up the slack, Sutton added. One of the reports more positive findings is that 85 per cent of the new hires in Saskatchewan’s high-tech industry come from local graduates. 

“This is one of the provinces where there’s an out-migration of young people once they graduate, but this is the one industry that’s keeping our young professionals,” he said. 

Areas of concentration in Saskatchewan’s high-tech sector include communications technology, circuit boards and wireless, the SATA report said.

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