An Overdue Welcome to Foreign Talent

Canada’s tech sector will have reason to cheer on June 12 when the federal government releases its long-awaited Global Skills Strategy, which promises to break open the bureaucratic logjam that currently impedes the ability of high-growth firms to hire skilled foreign talent.

The boldest promise being made is that Canadian high-growth companies will be able to enjoy a 10-day turnaround time for processing work permit applications needed to hire highly skilled foreign talent. That will be a welcome change from the current system this new strategy is designed to replace, which is painful for too many of the companies that participated because the processing time of a single application was uncertain and there was no guarantee of success in the end.

The new strategy comes at an opportune time, with Canada uniquely poised to welcome the world. Applications by foreign students to Canadian universities are on the rise: the University of Toronto alone has already seen a 70 per cent increase in applications from American students following Trump’s win, even as equivalent enrollments in the United States decline. Although the so-called “Trump effect” is certainly encouraging students and researchers to look north in search of a more welcoming environment, Canada’s reputation as a diverse and innovative environment was well-established prior to the election.

“The message is resonating,” Ben Zifkin, CEO of Hubba, told me recently. “In the last three weeks, I have had recruiting trips to New York and San Francisco. These are all top-tier, world-class individuals who are not only open to moving to Toronto, but excited by it. This didn’t happen a year ago.”

Already more than half of the 1,000 firms in the MaRS ecosystem have at least one foreign-born founder—a higher share than that of Silicon Valley. Openness is who we are, a fact emphasized in a statement from the Canadian tech community in response to the Trump administration’s attempts to close the country’s borders.

“Canadian tech companies understand the power of inclusion and diversity of thought, and that talent and skill know no borders,” Canada’s tech leaders declared in an open letter this past January. “In choosing to hire, train, and mentor the best people in the world, we can build global companies that grow our economy. By embracing diversity, we can drive innovation to benefit the world.”

It’s a fine sentiment, but until now putting it into practice has faced a wall of entirely homemade origin. Pulling that wall down is one of the last acts needed to release the full power of Canada’s innovation economy. (We also need to retain this talent once they are here, of course.)

The need for foreign talent is especially high among companies transitioning from startup to full commercial operation, increasing their employee count often in the order of 20 per cent a year. Appropriately, these are also the companies being targeted for expedited approvals under the new Global Skills Strategy.

While the focus is usually on the ICT sector, there are numerous clean-tech and health-tech companies that are now very well positioned to scale internationally and require a whole new skill set—mainly executive leadership, sales, marketing and business development, skills that are more often found by casting the net beyond Canada’s borders. In a recent conversation with Chia Chia Sun, CEO of women’s health company Damiva, she shared how difficult it is in the health sector to find executives who are well-versed in both Canadian and U.S. regulatory guidelines, for example.

The key element of the new program that companies should learn about is the Global Talent Stream, a two-year pilot program that promises to provide truly expedited visa approvals for highly-skilled foreign workers. The goal is to process employer applications through the Global Talent Stream within 10 working days—in 80 per cent of the cases—offering personalized client service where needed. There is also a commitment to process foreign work permit applications associated with the Global Talent Stream within 10 working days—again, in 80 per cent of the cases.

The program targets two categories of employers: innovative firms than can demonstrate a need for unique and specialized talent to maintain a high-growth trajectory; and those firms seeking to hire highly skilled foreign candidates in fields for which there is an established shortage in Canada. It requires them to complete an application with Employment and Social Development Canada outlining the lasting public benefits of the hire to the Canadian economy, either in terms of job gains or increasing the skill sets and training of others. (Full details of eligibility criteria will be released on June 12.)

As part of the program, the government has recruited designated partners, including MaRS, to help identify and recruit companies eligible to participate. Finding them will hardly present a challenge. Our only concern is that many otherwise eligible firms will hesitate to participate based on their past experience with the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, which was often slow and unpredictable.

In its conception, the Global Skills Strategy directly targets and promises to remove a key obstacle to the emergence of Canada’s new innovation economy. But it will only work if companies put bad memories out of mind, agree to participate in the pilot project and provide feedback on it, and ultimately help strengthen an overdue and welcome new approach to sourcing much-needed global talent.

Daneal Charney, Talent Lead and Startup Enthusiast at MaRS Venture Services.