Attracting and retaining talent tops discussion on Windsor's economic future

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

The Windsor Star/Dalson Chen



Enticing talented people to come here or stay here after training is a key pillar in developing and diversifying Windsor's economy, says Public First, the consulting firm hired to come up with a new strategy for the city.


Enticing talented people to come to Windsor or stay here after training is the key to developing and diversifying the local economy, according to a new strategy for the city’s future growth.

“What I said (to the consultants) is that this really ought to be an academic-centered type of plan,” said Mayor Drew Dilkens at the start of an eight-hour special meeting of Windsor city council on Monday.

Pointing to the contest in 2017-2018 to land Amazon’s HQ2 investment, Dilkens argued that the eventual winner, Washington, D.C., didn’t succeed due to incentives or transit system. “What it was about, was a war (based) on talent,” Dilkens said. “(Amazon) ended up going to a place that can provide exceptional talent.”

Dilkens said it’s clear from the latest study that Windsor needs to leverage its education institutions “to their fullest, linking them to the stuff we’re doing as a city, so that we’re each building on one another.”

Monday’s marathon virtual session was held to discuss the findings of an economic development report that the City of Windsor commissioned from Public First, a U.K.-based consulting firm.

Council had budgeted up to $400,000 on the report, which involved Public First conducting in-depth interviews with leaders, representatives, and stakeholders in local government, education, and business. At the conclusion of the meeting Monday, council voted unanimously to adopt the report.

Blair Gibbs, director of Public First, and Rachel Wolf, a founding partner of the firm, gave a presentation and participated in the entirety of the discussion on Monday.

Wolf, who lives in London, England, and has never been to Windsor, Ontario, acknowledged the inherent issues of trying to understand a community from afar.

Gibbs, who lives in Vancouver, said he spent a week in Windsor in October, before travel restrictions were raised due to the COVID-19 situation.

Dilkens emphasized that Public First was selected in order to have “fresh eyes applied to our region.”

“We wanted to start with a fresh slate,” Dilkens said. “Someone who hadn’t really been here, didn’t know much about the community, who could look at the geography on a map.”

Dilkens contended that Public First’s perspective allowed the firm to “synthesize a lot of information and put pieces together in a wholesome way, without being biased or jaded.”

Public First described their concept for Windsor as the “LIFT” strategy, identifying four pillars: Location, infrastructure, future economy, and talent.

‘Location’ concerns leveraging Windsor’s geography for growth. ‘Infrastructure’ refers to investing in the community to meet and support growth. ‘Future economy’ involves staying ahead of important shifts in technology and industry — such as the ongoing transformation of automotive manufacturing.

But many of the report’s recommendations depend on the key pillar of ‘talent,’ Gibbs said. “Unless the city can train, re-train, and attract the best talent from across Canada and the world, it will find all those other pillars quite difficult to deliver.”

Gibbs suggested developing new relationship structures to better link local post-secondary education institutions, the private sector and the municipality.

Many councillors agreed. “I teach as a sessional instructor at the university,” said Ward 2 Coun. Fabio Costante. “I can’t tell you how many students — international or domestic — got their degree from the University of Windsor and then fled to Toronto because there wasn’t enough opportunity here for them.”

Wolf said that when comparing Windsor with other cities, it’s important to note that Windsor is “very far from the bottom.”

“In some interviews, there was a tone, occasionally, of pessimism about where Windsor sits,” Wolf said. “Actually, it is performing quite well on a number of measures.”

“What I will also say, though, is (Windsor) is not performing at the top of any one of the core pillars. That’s another reason why our report doesn’t suggest one huge ‘Big Bang’ thing that we think you should do. It’s actually quite a lot of holistic things that apply to a lot of different pillars.”

Monday’s meeting included the participation of 18 delegations representing education institutions, industry associations and bureaus, and both public and commercial interest organizations.

Robert Gordon, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Windsor, said community engagement has been a top priority for the university.

He suggested that the acceleration of remote work due to the pandemic could represent opportunity in Windsor.

“I think one of the things we’re going to be seeing in the future, in a post-COVID ‘new normal,’ is the potential for individuals to be working for a wide range of companies and organizations — locally, nationally, and internationally — but staying here in Windsor-Essex.”