When BlackBerry Ltd. announced last week it would be axing 4,500 jobs sometime before Christmas, the tech community in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. was left reeling.
While the embattled company hasn’t said if all of the layoffs will be centred around its staff in Waterloo, Ont., it’s a safe bet many of its workers are going to have to look for new employment soon. It has also posted a loss of as much as $960 million.
But in the wake of the layoffs, there are still a number of companies who may be hiring, says Chris Plunkett, a spokesman for Communitech, a tech hub in Kitchener-Waterloo. He points to other large companies, startups, and foreign companies moving into the area as signs that Kitchener-Waterloo won’t be left desolate.
“A layoff is always bad news, and certainly our empathy is going to be with those who are affected at BlackBerry. But at the same time, the Kitchener-Waterloo region tech economy is incredibly strong,” he says.
“I think that something that BlackBerry really did amazingly well and really benefited the region was attracting world-class talent to Kitchener-Waterloo. And it augments the incredible talent coming out of the universities here … A number of companies will be looking to keep the talent that BlackBerry will be releasing in the region.”
Communitech is also keen on keeping tech talent to stay in Kitchener-Waterloo, he says, adding it set up a program called Tech Jobs Connex, helping laid-off BlackBerry workers find new employment. During a wave of layoffs in August 2012, it began to help people with job search support, workshops and information sessions, and career counselling.
Last year, 1,000 people went through the Tech Jobs Connex program. About 700 were either placed in new jobs, returned to school, or got help from Communitech to start their own businesses, Plunkett says.
OpenText Corp., an enterprise information management services provider, is also looking to bring new people on board. Headquartered in Waterloo, it celebrated its 20th anniversary last year and has offices in countries like the U.S., Germany, the U.K., France, South Africa, Japan, and India.
The company hired more than 100 people in the last year, and right now it has about 51 positions open in Kitchener-Waterloo, says Manny Sousa, senior vice-president of global human resources.
“We’re certainly hoping to have the very best talent, and there’s great talent in BlackBerry. So if people are available and on the market, we do consider them,” he says, adding the company’s mostly hunting for people with a background in computer science or engineering.
Other potential hires include people who are computer programmers, system analysts, mathematicians, and accountants.
“Waterloo is the perfect place to do that,” he says, adding he sees his company as one with a contemporary work environment.
“We encourage teamwork, so the type of qualities we look for in individuals are those that value those things. Strong team players, they have to be really, really smart… The people that we hire need to be innovative and they need to come with creative ideas on how to solve customer problems. And they have to be strongly analytical… and to communicate effectively.”
OpenText is also hiring non-technical people in sales and customer service, though to a lesser extent, Sousa says.
Motorola and Square looking to hire BlackBerry cast-offs
There’s also talk of some multi-national companies also moving into the region. Motorola Mobility LLC, which became a Google Inc. company in August 2011, announced this week it was opening an office within walking distance of Google’s Kitchener-Waterloo outpost.
Plus, mobile payments provider Square Inc. just opened a Kitchener-Waterloo office last week, also adding to some optimism among job seekers in the region. Founder Jack Dorsey, who also co-founded Twitter Inc., told TechVibes that Square’s Canadian base will be hiring about 30 engineers.
“We’re looking for talented engineers with a variety of skills, as we have a wide spectrum of ambitious technical challenges and opportunities at Square. Also, we’re looking for leaders who want to be challenged, are passionate about solving complex problems, and want to reimagine an age-old system that touches nearly everyone in the world today,” Square said in an emailed statement to ITBusiness.ca.
And of course, Kitchener-Waterloo has a very active startup community, with many of them looking for new blood. Thalmic Labs, which made headlines in June for raising $14.5 million in a Series A funding round, has hired about 40 people in the last year.
Thalmic Labs has been developing the Myo armband for about a year, and is aiming to ship the product by early 2014. Heralded as a futuristic example of wearable tech, the armband will allow users to control their gadgets by doing actions with their hands and fingers.
Right now, it has about 15 job openings available, says Stephen Lake, CEO and co-founder of Thalmic Labs.
BlackBerry employees snapped up by wearable tech firm
“We’re definitely hiring a lot of people right now,” he says, adding Thalmic Labs is looking for software developers, production engineers, manufacturing engineers, product managers, and IT specialists.
“And there’s lots of specialized areas, so we definitely hire a lot of people in machine learning and artificial intelligence. We have a number of people that work on hardware, electronics, and engineering, specifically on sensor design, and things like biosignal analysis processing and testing.”
While two of the company’s latest hires were former BlackBerry employees, with Mike Galbraith coming on board as Thalmic Labs’ CFO and David Perston now its VP of manufacturing, Lake wouldn’t confirm if his company would definitely be hiring anyone else from BlackBerry.
“In general, we hire people from all over. We do have a couple of former BlackBerry employees, but we also have former Google employees,” he says. “We try and hire with as much diversity as possible, and also people that are smart and that are excited about what we’re working on … kind of irrespective of where they come from.”
Still, BlackBerry isn’t necessarily shuttering its doors any time in the near future. And with the most recent news about its largest shareholder, Fairfax Financial Holdings Limited, putting an offer down on the table, it doesn’t look as BlackBerry will completely disappear any time soon, Plunkett says.
Even if it has to downsize, there will still be other companies looking to do local hires, he adds.
“BlackBerry grew out of the ecosystem of Waterloo. It didn’t create the ecosystem itself … there are a lot of other companies around,” he says. “No one company is going to take the place of BlackBerry … But there are a lot of other companies in the region that will be picking up the slack.”