When Donald Trump tightened restrictions on visas for foreign workers last summer, Chuck Robbins, chief executive of tech group Cisco, dubbed the then US president’s move “a Canadian jobs creation act”.
There was logic behind his hyperbole: demand for the H-1B visas on which US companies recruit skilled foreign employees already so outstripped supply that applications had been hitting the 85,000 annual cap within days of the process starting. The new constraints, coupled with Trump’s hostile immigration rhetoric, helped to turn Canadian cities into some of North America’s fastest growing tech hubs.
“The best thing to happen to highlight Canada’s [immigration] programme was Trump,” says Betsy Kane, an Ontario immigration lawyer. With Trump in the White House, “Canada was highlighted by virtue of the comparison with what was going on down south”, she says.
Canada’s competitive edge was also helped by policies introduced by prime minister Justin Trudeau. However, since Joe Biden won the White House after pledging to issue more high-skilled visas, the Trump factor in the war for talent has disappeared. Can Canada remain as competitive without it?
This question matters to Canada. The country’s 900,000 “tech talent workers” account for 5.6 per cent of its workforce, compared with 3.7 per cent in the US, according to real estate services group CBRE. They also have an outsized effect on its economy. Yet its fastest-growing companies struggle to find skilled employees.
“There’s not many people who have done what we need to do,” says Andrew D’Souza, co-founder of Clearco, a lender to ecommerce companies. “If we just focus on people in Canada who are in Toronto already, it’ll pull us down.”
D’Souza’s Indian family moved to Canada when he was young after their US visas were not extended. He moved away to San Francisco after university, but he and Michele Romanow — his co-founder and partner — returned to launch their company.
Clearco hired more than 100 people in 2020 and plans to add another 300 this year. That would not be possible without Canada’s fast-track immigration programme, the founders say, given the intense competition for tech skills.
“This is one of the hottest markets I’ve ever seen for tech talent,” says Romanow, who stars on Canada’s version of Dragons’ Den, the TV show.
Yung Wu, who runs a Toronto start-up hub called the MaRS Discovery District, believes “talent fuels the innovation economy.” And in growth areas, such as climate and life sciences, he says the demand for outsiders is increasing.
“The Trump rhetoric, no doubt, helped to create a flow of the talent north,” Wu says, but Canada took advantage of those years to establish pockets of “transformational talent” that now attract ambitious newcomers.
Josh Schachnow, whose Visto.ai platform helps people navigate Canada’s immigration process, is seeing “a boom” in interest in permanent residence, even as Covid controls bar new applications from outside the US.
That is in part because Canada has responded to border closures during the pandemic by making it easier for people already on temporary visas to become permanent residents. Biden, by contrast, has not relaxed the rules on H-1B visas or green cards, despite pressure from business. Figures cited by the US Chamber of Commerce show 1.2m people are caught in US employment-based green-card backlogs.
“People don’t want to live in that limbo for that long,” says Kane. Skilled foreign workers can be in Canada within a couple of months of securing a job, she notes, and then segue to a permanent residency application process that can take only 12 months.
But while Biden may not have dented Canada’s ability to import talent, Covid-19 has, admits Mike Tremblay, president of the economic development agency Invest Ottawa: “The challenge now is, if you want someone who has a PhD or a hot skill, even if you have a job for them, they can’t board a plane.”
Darrell Wellington, general manager of Syntronic Canada, says his engineering design house had to cancel five offers last year for this reason. But, this year, it has brought in 20 people, seeing a benefit to having people in the same timezone even as working from home became the norm.
Romanow and D’Souza made a different decision: offering new recruits the chance to work for Clearco from their home countries, as flexibility can be an advantage in “a global talent war”.
Canadians who would once have left the country for work have embraced the same flexibility, says Michelle Zatlyn, the Canadian co-founder of Cloudflare. She recently opened the California internet security company’s first office in Toronto. “I think, long term, Canada’s in a really good spot,” she says — predicting that its education system, quality of life and growing opportunities will convince more Canadians to stay.
Whatever the US does, her view is: “I don’t think this is a moment for Canada, I think it’s a movement.”