By Dwight Howse, Head, School of Ocean Technology, Marine Institute of Memorial University

The Strategic Agenda “Outward Bound”, published by OceansAdvance in 2009, presented the collective view of the ocean technology cluster in Newfoundland and Labrador. They established a collective goal of growing the ocean technology industry within the province to $1 billion in annual revenues by 2015. As a point of reference, a study by InnovaQuest and Petra International in 2006 pegged this sector at about $260 million.

 

With a sector of that size in 2009, it means that to reach the target growth the sector must sustain an annual increase in revenue of just over 16%—both laudable and lofty.  The InnovaQuest study indicated that there were 1,430 employees working in the sector, most of whom were specialists.  In other words, each specialist was generating an average of $182,000 for the sector.

 

Challenges to Growing a $1 Billion Industry

The question we must ask is: What are the challenges to growing to a billion-dollar industry?  Some broad candidates include:

 

Facilities/Equipment – You need only look around the community to see the wealth of capability in ocean technology that has been established through industry, government and academia to know that we are blessed with an enviable capacity in this area.

 

Capital – Money is certainly the fuel that drives any industry that turns money into ideas (research) and ideas back into money (innovation).  As a Province, we have fared better than most through the recent economic downturn.  While Newfoundland and Labrador is not a  venture capital centre, there is access to R&D support through various provincial and national programs as well as through industrial sources.

 

Market – Who wants to buy the products and services that are generated by our ocean technology companies?  The ocea n technology market is both global and vast, estimated to be in the trillions of dollars annually.  Local compnies recognize this and the great majority of the cluster’s sales occur outside the province.  Further, although their sales are significant by provincial standards, the extent to which Newfoundland and Labrador companies have penetrated the global market is still relatively small.

 

People – I believe the biggest challenge to the proposed growth is in attracting sufficient people who have the inclination, creativity, innovation, technical skills, educational background, experience and passion to work in the ocean technology field.

 

Since we are projecting growth from $260 million to $1 billion (approximately a fourfold increase), we can assume that this will require a similar increase in the number of people working in the industry—to 5,720 people. In other words, we need to attract 4,920 people into the sector, in addition to replacing retirees plus other replacements over a period of six years.

 

In 2010, there were approximately 5,500 grade 12 students in Newfoundland and Labrador, grade 12 being the pool that will supply most of the new people to the industry by 2015.  With the number of graduates from high schools projected to decline by 1 – 2% per year for the next few years, this means that we will need to attract about one-sixth of the provincial high school graduates into Ocean Technology to meet this goal.  Clearly, this is not a realistic expectation.  Nonetheless, it highlights the fact that we need to attract as many as possible into the sector if we are to meet the growth objectives.  This is our biggest challenge in my view.

 

Positive Steps

Having identified the challenges, what are some positive steps that we as a cluster can take to maximize the potential for success?

 

1.       Promotion among high school students – It is our responsibility both as a cluster and as individuals within the cluster to enthusiastically promote the capability, opportunity, challenge, and reward of the ocean technology industry among young people in the province in order to encourage more to consider careers in this field and to select appropriate math and science courses to enable that career path.

 

2.       Engage with post-secondary institutions– Companies and the academic community need to become more connected.  Academia needs input from industry to ensure relevance and timeliness of programs.  This is typically done formally through advisory committees but input is always welcome on an informal basis as well.  In addition, students in post-secondary institutions are typically required to undertake projects within their programs. Presenting a project challenge for students to work on is an excellent way to engage with them at an early stage and let them know where the industry is headed and get them thinking about where the challenges and opportunities lie.  What better opportunity is there to groom a near graduate for your company than to engage with them during their academic life?

 

3.       Hire young people – Whether through work-term placements or as new graduates, we need to invest in the finessing of the education process by hiring young people to give them an introduction to their careers and the realities of working life.  We must keep in mind that there are plenty of opportunities outside our province for bright young graduates.

 

If we do not invest in our young people, we cannot hope to attract them to our local industry, thereby fulfilling our growth goals.

 

In the four years since the School of Ocean Technology at the Marine Institute of Memorial University was established, it has developed an impressive mix of academic programs and applied research and development projects.  We are positioned to work within the ocean technology cluster to enable the growth of the local ocean technology capacity. We welcome opportunities to engage with the cluster.