Canadian tech companies are attracting more overseas talent, but brain drain to U.S. continues

posted on December 6, 2018

By Vancouver Sun |

A new government program to bring foreign talent in more quickly is working, yet Canada continues to lose thousands of highly educated, skilled people to the United States each year.

It took just six weeks for Johannesburg’s Ideshini Naidoo to be hired, navigate the immigration process and relocate across the Atlantic to start work at Wave Financial Inc. as the Toronto-based tech company’s new chief technology officer.

What used to be an ordeal turned out to be pretty smooth, aside from the drastic change in climate. “I went from South African summer to Canadian winter. It was quite a shock,” she said.

In previous years, it would have been impossible for Wave, which provides accounting software to small businesses in more than 200 countries, to bring in Naidoo, who has executive experience in banking and e-commerce, so quickly — it would have been difficult to do in less than a year, never mind six weeks.

But Naidoo was fast-tracked under a new federal program called the Global Talent Stream, currently running as a 24-month pilot, which has helped fast-growing Canadian tech companies recruit and retain highly skilled talent from around the world.

The pilot is a key component of Ottawa’s goal to stimulate innovation and encourage economic development and diversification and it has had some success, but industry executives say it at best solves half the problems tech-sector HR managers face, because Canadian tech talent continues to be lured by the buzz of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies even as it’s easier to bring in foreign workers.

The Global Talent Stream program is at least a start in addressing that issue. In the year before the program launched in June 2017, Wave hired two senior people from abroad in a drawn-out process that Ashira Gobrin, the company’s senior vice-president of people and culture, said took nine months for one position and 12 months for the other.

“Imagine trying to hire 20 or 30 or 50 engineers. You’re hiring for immediate needs. How would I even know if in 12 months that I will have an open position at that time?” Gobrin said. “Six weeks is a hell of a lot better than the nine to 12 months we were dealing with previously.”

She said the program has been a massive boost to her company of 200-plus employees, allowing Wave to scale up more quickly than it otherwise could have. Further, she hopes the pilot program proves successful since there is otherwise expected to be a shortage of 20,000 engineers in the city of Toronto alone in 2020.

It’s not just Toronto that needs more talent. A study released in November by the Communications Technology Council forecasts demand for 216,000 new tech workers across the country by 2021, a demand the Global Talent Stream program is supposed to help meet.

The program expedites the immigration and work visa processes in one of two ways. A “designated partner,” or a company the government has identified as needing to hire skilled foreign workers, can refer potential job candidates through the program. Or, companies can hire foreign workers in select positions, identified by the government through its “global talent occupations list,” for which there are insufficient Canadian workers.

The Council of Canadian Innovators, an association of roughly 100 small- and mid-sized tech companies, said that 20 per cent of its members have already made use of the Global Talent Stream to hire workers, including senior people with the intention of building teams around them.

One such company is Vancouver-based Terramera Inc., which develops plant-based pest control and other agriculture products. It recently hired Wiseborn Danquah as a senior scientist to build a team to develop safer products for controlling microscopic worms.

Danquah, a nematologist (an expert in roundworms), was educated in Ghana, the U.K. and the U.S. before moving to Vancouver through the program.

“Nematologists are very rare worldwide and also in Canada,” said Karn Manhas, chief executive and founder of Terramera, who added that “bringing in Wiseborn was really important.”

Marhas said Danquah is now training young biologists in his field, and the company’s nematology team has expanded from zero to three people in under a year.

However, he also said the company has been able to build out other related teams — such as its engineering department, which has grown from zero to 30 people in a year — largely as a result of establishing its nematology team.

Critically, Manhas said, the company has not been forced to locate its research and development efforts outside of Canada, which was a potential concern previously.

Since Global Talent Stream’s launch, the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship said companies have used it to hire for 3,100 new positions. In an email, the ministry said companies have also committed to establish 38,000 jobs for Canadians or permanent residents and invest $59 million in training domestically.

But while the program has helped bring in foreign talent, Canada continues to lose thousands of highly educated, skilled people from the technology sector to the United States each year.

“I think we are losing a ton of really talented people,” said Lindsay Gibson, chief operating officer at Waterloo, Ont.-based TextNow Inc., a 107-person company. “It has to be hurting Canada.”

TextNow has also used the Global Talent Stream to hire foreign talent and Gibson said the company is looking to grow its headcount to 130 employees.

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