Silicon Valley North #1 Nov'98

The Way I See It… by Michael Volker

The "Brain Drain" can be plugged.

Mass exodus of engineers and programmers heading out of British Columbia – fact or myth? Many companies that have been harping about this phenomenon complain about the "business-unfriendly" environment in B.C. Technology firms are worried, not only about how they are going to fill the 2,000 or so current job openings in the Province, but how they are going to plug the proverbial brain drain.

The often cited 22% high tech growth rate shows clearly that there’s been a substantial increase in employment. Our institutions certainly didn’t provide all those new hires! While some may be leaving the Province, it would appear that many more are coming.

The common view is that "If I were a young engineer today, I’d venture south, lured by substantially higher wages, the reputation of Silicon Valley, opportunity and adventure." With this in mind, I was prompted to conduct a personal survey. So I asked an engineering class of 74 students about their plans after graduation. The results were surprising.

First, most of them want to stay right here in B.C. Second, their salary expectations are quite modest - about $45K on average – somewhat comparable to the median $41K recently reported in a Vancouver Sun editorial. How much of a salary hike it would take to get them to go to California, Ontario, or Hawaii (the latter was used to test the lifestyle hypothesis)? These locations are about equally desirable as destinations for the group, but it would take anywhere from 30% to 100% more pay to get their attention. The current gross pay differential is, in fact, in that range.

And pay isn’t everything. It would take much more than a doubling in salary to entice these students to a job in Mexico. More than 80% of them say that challenging and interesting work is the first or second most important factor in accepting a job. Only one person even mentioned stock options.

Big pay cheques and stock options may be strong motivators for technology leaders and entrepreneurs, but these are not necessarily important factors for their technical rank and file. The recent KPMG/CATA Alliance high tech labor survey also concludes that salary is not the top priority and stock options, as I discovered, are the least important factor.

At the last meeting of the Vancouver Enterprise Forum, James Lau – who heads up IBM’s recently opened Pacific Development Centre near Simon Fraser University – made it clear: The way to get good people is to allow them to excel and thrive in their work. A good example is Electronic Arts in Burnaby. The Globe and Mail recently devoted almost an entire page to EA, highlighting how much fun it is to work (i.e. play) there.

The catalyst for any brain drain is not lower pay as compared to other regions although, this does make it tougher to bring foreign talent to B.C. Salaries would have to at least double to attract Californians, for instance, and changes in government policies or tax cuts will impact the brain drain (or brain gain) only slightly.

So, the way I see it, as long as the jobs are challenging, interesting and fun, highly qualified people will stay, especially if we don’t stress them out by consistently expecting them to work long hours.

Let them enjoy life on the "silicon slopes" and meet their modest salary expectations ($45K will do). They’re more likely to compare their salaries to those of other Canadians than they are to those of techies in Seattle, Austin or San Jose. And in the end they'll take a lot less to stay where their heart is.

Michael Volker is a high technology entrepreneur and director of Simon Fraser U's University/Industry Liaison Office. He is a former executive director of the BC Advanced Systems Institute and is chair of the Vancouver Enterprise Forum. He may be reached at

Copyright, 1999.