Donald Trump's immigration policies create an opportunity for Canada's tech sector to gain much-needed skilled workers. SEAN KILPATRICK / THE CANADIAN PRESS

by Benjamin Bergen, Vancouver Sun

March 01, 2017

Opinion: From drain to gain - Canada's opportunity to attract global talent

Within hours of U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, which targeted migrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries and impacted thousands of green card-holding foreign residents working in the United States, a movement had taken shape north of the border. 

n a private Facebook chat led by employees and CEOs from Canada’s tech community, an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was being drafted, calling on the federal government to issue temporary visas and residency to anyone displaced by Trump’s immigration ban.

“Diversity is our strength,” the letter read. “By embracing diversity, we can drive innovation to benefit the world.”

Since the letter was published, it has picked up national and international coverage, and rightly so. Canada has long been defined by our embrace of multiculturalism and our values of openness and tolerance. We are now poised to leverage our values of inclusion and diversity to attract global talent to our workforce. 

The timing could not be better. Canada is facing a shrinking workforce for its domestic tech industry, a drained talent pool, and an aging population.

Canadian technology companies looking to scale up are struggling to do so, in part because they do not have access to the home-grown talent they need to expand and compete on the global stage.

Years of a brain drain of talent has occurred in large part because of Canada’s proximity to the United States and because Canadian technology companies are smaller than they were 10 years ago, so opportunities to be part of indigenous high-growth firms have been limited. With an attractive tech sector, no real language barriers and minimal cultural differences, Canada has lost a disproportionate amount of talent to the U.S. 

A 2015 Canadian labour study predicted that by 2019, as many as 182,000 jobs in our technology sector will sit vacant because there will not be enough people to fill these positions. 

We are now seeing Canadian companies that are unable to acquire the talent they need either packing up or selling out. Both of these outcomes leave Canada’s economy without wealth-generating intellectual property.

In today’s global innovation economy, this must be seen as the equivalent of a Canadian company working in the oil industry packing up and moving away from Canada, but taking the oil with them.

This is because innovation has changed how wealth is generated by companies. 

Commercializing intellectual property is how new wealth is generated in today’s economy. The most valuable companies in the world are companies built on intellectual property (Google, Apple, etc.). By increasing our capacity to commercialize intellectual property generated in Canada, our domestic tech companies can rapidly grow our private and public wealth.

So how do we undo Canada’s brain drain, help our companies scale up, and grow our economy?

We must examine our immigration system, develop talent retention strategies, but more than anything, with the unique opportunity the Trump administration has handed to its northern neighbour, we can’t shy away from being unabashedly Canadian to attract global talent to our workforce.

Fortunately, the Trudeau government has already started to work on this. Late last fall, they announced a new Global Skills Strategy, a strong effort put forward to attract talent from beyond our borders to the companies within them.

This strategy promises a new two-week visa turnaround standard, helping to address long backlogs that hinder talent acquisition of in-demand workers from abroad.

Adding foreign workers to our population can be an economic driver, but the approach the federal government takes to build up our workforce also needs to be diligent and deliberate.

The Global Skills Strategy should focus on helping to grow the sectors that have potential for enormous wealth generation for Canada, including health tech, clean tech, fintech, cyber security, artificial intelligence and information and communications technology (ICT). 

Targeted growth in these sectors will enable a large number of companies to unlock billions in revenues, helping Ottawa to achieve the two per cent GDP growth they are looking for each year.

This growth all begins with Canada becoming a brighter beacon on the world’s stage for global talent, magnetizing further our values of openness and tolerance for attracting those our economy needs today.

President Barack Obama remarked last year that the world needs more Canada. 

For our federation to remain a strong player in the global economy, now is the time that Canada needs more of the world.

Benjamin Bergen is executive director of the Council of Canadian Innovators.

This article was published originally on Vancouver Sun on March 1, 2017.