It’s official. Canada has gone from “brain drain” to “brain gain.”
“We are the biggest talent poacher in the OECD,” explained the National Bank of Canada’s chief economist Stéfane Marion earlier this year. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s figures show we’re now attracting the highest proportion of highly skilled immigrants among their 36 member countries, including the U.S. and U.K. Considering that Silicon Valley continues to exert a gravitational pull on skilled workers as the centre of the tech universe, this is nothing short of amazing.
I’ve seen our gains firsthand in the technology space. In contrast to the exodus of tech talent from Canada that dominated headlines in years past, today entrepreneurs and senior-level talent from abroad are increasingly choosing Canada. This reversal owes as much to progressive policy as to skillful emphasis on Canada’s natural advantages — from its quality of life to access to huge markets south of the border.
The real test, however, will be if we can keep this up. Canada is positioned to not just participate in but lead the 4th industrial revolution — the coming wave of societal change driven by innovations like artificial intelligence, automation and augmented reality. But grabbing the reins may not be easy.
A case of simple math
Canada’s relationship with immigration is not nearly as fraught as in other countries like the U.S. or Britain — and for good reason. All politics and rhetoric aside, Canada needs immigrants.
The Conference Board of Canada estimates that 13.4 million Canadians will leave the labour force between 2018 and 2040. Meanwhile, only 11.8 million are expected to graduate from schools to take their places. Our economy, plus the solvency of so many of our core institutions — healthcare, pensions and other social services — depends on finding ways to fill that gap.
In my sector, we’ve grown the number of tech jobs in British Columbia by 30 percent from 2011 to 2016 to more than 100,000 jobs, according to a recent report by the BC Tech Association. Local graduates are filling many of those roles but by themselves simply couldn’t sustain that growth. International talent has proved critical in filling the gap.
I’ve witnessed the upsides of Canada’s brain gain up close as an investor and advisor to young entrepreneurs like Sam Chandola, the founder of Vancouver-based V2 Games. He came to this country through the Startup Visa program, which welcomes newcomers who create businesses that drive employment and economic growth. We’re also attracting much needed senior-level talent from around the world. I think of Syrian immigrant Hussein Hallak, who recently started a major EdTech company in Vancouver after successfully scaling multiple tech businesses around the world.
How to continue attracting talent
For all the good news, however, one difficulty will be sustaining this success in the years ahead. As other countries — from China and India to Russia, France and Australia — develop vibrant ecosystems in their own right, how can we continue to attract the best and brightest in tech and other spaces?
Good governance, stability, a great education system and a high quality of life has made us attractive so far, but extending these advantages with progressive policy will be critical.
In many respects, we’re already ahead of the game. After Trump’s election in 2016, for instance, the U.S. immediately cracked down on the H1-B Visa program that helped American companies import skilled labour. The same year, Canada announced its Global Skills Strategy to speed up the hiring of highly-skilled foreign workers. That initiative has since attracted 24,000 people.
Our challenge looking ahead is to ensure these policies are flexible enough for the new economy and new talent streams that come along with the 4th Industrial revolution. The Global Talent Stream, for instance, requires that applicants have an advanced degree and/or five years’ experience in their specialized field. The reality today, however, is that some of the best talent in emerging fields — from drone technology to blockchain — have largely taught themselves or even invented their areas of expertise.
We can also do a better job retaining the exceptional international talent that come through temporary visa programs. Many of the workers filling the Canadian offices of Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook are only here short-term, for instance, collaborating remotely with their U.S. colleagues, and will eventually transfer to jobs south of the border. It’s worth asking how we can keep this amazing talent in our backyard to build Canada’s own innovation ecosystem.
In contrast to Canada’s rich natural resources, its digital resources will take time to develop; we’ll only truly reap returns decades from now. But we have a unique opportunity to take steps now to lead the 4th industrial revolution and equip Canada for the next century. Let’s not miss that chance.