Canada can't fall behind in the global race for tech talent

With Canada's fast-growing tech sector facing a shortage of 220,000 workers by 2020, the federal government is wisely expediting the immigration process for highly skilled workers. It's doing that via its new Global Talent Stream, which launched earlier this month.

As one of the CEOs from across the country who called on Ottawa to streamline the immigration process so that Canadian high-growth companies could quickly access talent not widely available within our borders, this faster process is a welcome change. As part of the Global Skills Strategy, the expedited work permit review process cuts wait times for applications to a two-week turnaround, from months or close to a year. Speed is important because the faster turnaround can be the difference between successfully recruiting a candidate, and losing them to another organization (in another country).

High-growth software companies such as FreshBooks are hungry to access the talent that help scale our organizations, compete globally and stay in Canada. I wish all that talent was here today, but it's not. Almost every time I start a search for a senior leader, I look south of the border, often to Boston, New York and Silicon Valley, where I can find candidates who have experience at scale in my industry. You may think I am focusing on employing Canadians. To my way of thinking, if I get the best candidate, and they help us scale, FreshBooks will both hire and train more great Canadians than if I settle. I need the best leaders I can get - no matter where they are - to make that happen. The Global Talent Stream targets two types of talent: highly skilled and unique. highly skilled workers, such as senior software developers, lifecycle marketers, UX designers and digital acquisition experts, help companies achieve their targets, grow and respond to market demand. Unique workers include those with a skill set unmatched by industry standards - chief executive officers, chief marketing officers, vice-presidents of engineering - who can help a company grow from a million dollars in revenue each year to a billion-dollar company because of their unique experience.

Access to key talent is important because there are consequences when Canadian companies can't secure the talent they need. Whether the talent here is scarce, or unhelpful polices thwart efforts to hire from elsewhere, companies are forced to choose to operate without the talent they need and become less competitive, or to leave to set up offices in other countries. Countries around the world recognize this crossroads and are making themselves attractive to fast-growing companies.

Today, it's easier than ever before to set up a company outside of Canada, as countries actively court companies and compete with one another to create jobs. For all these reasons, efforts to help Canada attract sought-after talent are more important than ever. Therefore, our government's approach to immigration contributes to the attractiveness of growing a 21st-century company in Canada. Being able to quickly attract the best and brightest minds to Canada - above and beyond the ones that already live here - is one way the federal government has listened to the needs of CEOs who are choosing to grow their companies in Canada.

But it's not just about attracting talent - retaining Canadian talent is another critical challenge.

Canada has long had a highly skilled and educated work force, but our proximity to the United States has created a "brain drain" that shrinks our talent pool and makes it hard to compete with large firms. When I was growing up, we bemoaned the loss of graduates from our medical schools who were lured to the United States, where they could make much more money. Today this happens in tech. For example, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft make the pilgrimage to Canadian universities, such as the University Waterloo, to woo engineering students out of Canada to build their careers in the United States. To stem this flow of talent, we need to build globally competitive companies that our talented work force is inspired to join. It takes talent to do that. For Canada to realize its potential and build a dominant innovation industry, and for Canadians to benefit from that industry and the ecosystem that results from that, pragmatic policies like the Global Talent Stream will help us get there, create more good jobs and generate wealth within our borders.

Published in Daily Times, July 3rd , 2017.

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