WATERLOO, Ont. - After BlackBerry helped build its reputation as the epicentre of Canada's technology sector, Waterloo, Ont., is working against the odds to find jobs for hundreds of employees who have been laid off by the smartphone company.
At a convention centre on the outskirts of the city, nearly 700 people — about half of them former BlackBerry staff — gathered at a technology jobs fair this week where they hoped to find a position at another company.
But the overwhelming attendance suggested that most would face disappointment.
"My goal is to try and meet with prospective employers," said Mike Holownych, a Kitchener, Ont., resident who lost his job with BlackBerry in 2012 but wants to stay in the region.
"I've been looking in the tech sector since August of last year. Most of the interest I've been getting has been outside of the area, both in Toronto and in the states."
While the jobs fair was planned with BlackBerry employees in mind, it was open to everyone, and the overwhelming attendance offered a glimpse of just how intense the pursuit of well-paying jobs has become in Waterloo.
Those valuable positions are even rarer after BlackBerry announced plans in September to reduce its staff by an additional 4,500 employees, many of them centralized at its headquarters.
Weathering the Canadian jobs market is major challenge for Communitech, an organization that rallies behind Waterloo technology firms. Communitech also oversees the government-funded program Tech Jobs Connex, which is solely responsible for helping former BlackBerry employees find new positions through organizing events like this one.
At the jobs fair, booths were set up by 50 companies — some larger firms like Sun Life Financial (TSX:SLF) while others were local startups — and each planned to hire roughly five employees.
Those numbers suggest that, at best, about a third of the prospective employees were likely to land a new job from the event.
"You realize what your competition is like," said Paula Hossack, a Waterloo resident who lost her job at a consumer products manufacturing company in a layoff last month.
"I've been sending out resumes like crazy, but I can't just sit and expect something is going to come from that."
Hossack arrived with a binder of resumes and a plan: She wanted to meet face-to-face with prospective employers and try and stand out from the crowd. But she also realized the room was full of former BlackBerry (TSX:BB) employees who come with a wealth of experience.
"There's a lot of very educated people out here today and it's intimidating," she said.
Meanwhile, Communitech said it was concerned about locals who were trained at the city's universities and colleges and who could now be lured away from the region. Recently, Apple Inc. swooped into the community to entice some ex-BlackBerry staff and University of Waterloo graduates.
"We're fully aware of it, but it's not something that we've actively endorsed," said Karen Gallant, who oversees the BlackBerry jobs program.
"We want to keep the talent here in Canada and not send them to Silicon Valley or anywhere like that."
Mobile payments firm Square Inc. has established a local office that will eventually house 30 to 40 Canadian employees, said Jack Dorsey, the company's CEO who also founded Twitter.
"We're really inspired by the engineers up here, so we want to invest in it," he said in a recent interview, pointing to local schools as a key resource.
"There's a skill level that was extremely impressive to us right away."
Other U.S. companies, like Google and Motorola, are in the process of bulking up their offices in Waterloo.
While major tech firms moving into the area is promising on one level, their presence comes with a number of caveats.
Many foreign tech firms have opened shop in Canada because employees work for less pay and because companies receive tax breaks from the government. But past experience has shown that Canadian tax incentives can be fleeting and that tech companies will turn on a dime when they find a better offer.
This year, Vancouver's video game and film industry lost hundreds of jobs at companies like Pixar, which decided to retreat back to the United States.
And video game maker Electronic Arts shuttered operations in Vancouver and moved some of its offices to Waterloo where there are better tax breaks offered by the Ontario government.
Those factors make the entry of U.S. companies bittersweet. For years BlackBerry headquarters was the backbone for the smaller startup community that grew up around it, and its Canadian roots ensured it wouldn't pack up operations.
In some ways, those days are over as BlackBerry focuses on being a much leaner and changing its business approach.
Further pink slips will be issued into next year as the smartphone company moves ahead with already announced cuts, which will push another wave of job seekers into the market.
Some former BlackBerry employees are fortunate enough to have already found jobs. Jim MacMillan was laid off in August and began the job hunt soon afterwards. He said he is wrapping up negotiations to take a job with a local company.
"I was motivated, let's put it that way," he said.
"I don't want to sound selfish, but I wanted to get moving, because I knew the market was going to be saturated with people looking."