Tech Brain Drain is Being Solved by International Talent—But We Have to Look Deeper

Despite all of the Canadian brain drain narratives floating around, it seems there is an influx of foreign talent coming to the country to replace leaving workers, especially in tech roles.

The federal government recently released their Express Entry Year-end Report for 2017 which details and consolidates information about some of Canada’s key economic immigration programs. The results show that despite losing some homegrown talent to brain drain—which is essentially tech talent heading to the U.S. in search of higher-paying jobs—Canada is still adding more and more talent through immigration programs.

The top three occupations by number of invitations issued to candidates for 2017 are all tech roles and resulted in 16 per cent of the total invitations issued. Leading the pack is information systems analysts and consultants with 5,214 invitations issued, second is software engineers with 4,782 invitations, and third is computer programmers and interactive media developers with 3,479 invitations issued. The chart below shows these numbers along with the fourth and fifth-place occupations. It had already been reported that Canada, and mainly Toronto, is becoming internationally attractive to tech talent, but these new numbers can back it up.

Brain Drain express entry

In terms of where the new talent to Canada is coming from, India dominates the immigration pool with 42 per cent of total invitations issued. China is second with nine per cent, followed by Nigeria, Pakistan, the U.K. and the U.S.

This is how Express Entry invitations work: Candidates create a profile and enter it into a pool, and then that profile is ranked based on a number of factors, including age, language ability, education, experience, and more. A job offer from a Canadian company is not required, but it does weigh heavily into a candidate’s final score. Draws are conducted by Immigration Canada, then those who are selected must complete an application for one of Express Entry’s programs: Federal Skilled Worker Program, Federal Skilled Trades Program, Canada Experience Class or Provincial Nomination Program.

The above-issued invitation figures, when compared to a report last month issued by Munk School of Global Affairs’ Innovation Policy Lab at the University of Toronto, vastly outnumber the amount of new tech talent leaving the country. That report found that software engineers were, by far, the occupation most likely to head to the U.S. in search of a higher-paying role after graduation—66 per cent in total. The second highest occupation leaving Canada were computer engineers at 30 per cent. That report’s data came from a survey taken in 2015 and 2016 and only included three of the country’s top universities–University of Waterloo, University of British Columbia and U of T.

However, according to data from the same period and aggregated by Engineers Canada, 1,266 total software engineer degrees and 1,426 computer engineering undergraduate degrees were awarded across every educational institution in Canada in 2015 and 2016 combined. This is just over half of the total Express Entry invitations issued to software engineering workers in 2017 alone, and when 2016’s total of 1,428 invitations is added in, it becomes less than half.

That means Canada issued invitations to 6,210 foreign workers in the software engineering field to become permanent citizens over 2016 and 2017 but lost around 1,278 Canada-educated software and computer engineers over the same time period.

When post-grad is taken into account, Engineers Canada shows 356 computer engineering and 322 software engineering post-grad degrees handed out in 2015 and 2016 combined. If the U of T’s report is applied to these post-grad numbers as well, then approximately 321 of those post-grads left to the U.S. in search of a job. This still leaves more than enough international talent coming in through Express Entry to replace leaving Canadian grads.

Breaking it down

These stats put a few things into perspective but leave out a few slightly subjective points. The value of a certain education can be hard to judge, as there is no real way to see if a graduate from the University of Waterloo has the same talent as someone immigrating in from another country. The U of T report also only surveys new graduates, and not those who may have been working in tech for years who then decided to leave for the U.S.

Also, despite having invitations issued for, say, software engineering, that does not necessarily mean a new immigrant will land a job in that exact field with that exact role, or keep one for the rest of their working career. In addition, many of these Express Entry invitations were issued to immigrants already living and working in Canada, meaning there may not be as much of an influx of new talent, but rather talent that will stay in the country for the foreseeable future.

Finally, this does not mean brain drain does not exist. New Canadian tech grads are still leaving the country in search of higher salaries, typically flocking to Silicon Valley, Seattle and New York. The problem of underpaid tech talent in Canada is still prominent, and until companies begin to increase salaries, Canadian grads will seek higher paying roles down south.

But the conclusion that can be drawn is that despite brain drain being prevalent in the Canadian tech industry, it will not lead to a shortage of qualified talent. Talent retention becomes the biggest problem as companies place an emphasis on finding workers who have been educated at home and want to build Canadian companies. But there are a few examples of foreign talent moving to Canada and starting businesses here that become successful, such as Shopify, who’s founder Tobias Lütke moved to Canada from Germany in 2002.

Bringing attention to tech brain drain and comparatively lower salaries is important, but it’s also time to celebrate the new talent being brought in through Canada’s several immigration programs. These new workers will bring diversity to the country’s technology scene, and you never know when one will found the next Canadian unicorn—or Narwhal, as we put it. The real problem might come from making sure this new talent is working to build Canadian companies, a problem that is already starting to show itself.