Immigration needed to drive B.C. innovation, business leaders say

Every week Techvibes will be republishing an article from Business in Vancouver newspaper.

This article was originally published in issue #1040 – Sep. 29-Oct. 5, 2009.

BC schools are failing to incubate the innovation needed to reduce the provincial economy’s dependence on natural resources.

Academic and industry representatives taking part in a panel session last Tuesday also concluded that because of the decline of high-school graduates in the next decade, B.C. might have to rely largely on the skills of foreign workers.

The discussion on innovation’s role in the provincial economy in 2020 was part of the Business Council of BC’s Outlook 2020 Summit Series on the province’s economic future. It focused on how B.C. can address challenges such as a soaring retirement rate, declines in the number of high-school graduates and the difficulties universities face in recruiting students with below-average socio-economic backgrounds.

Those challenges, said panel-moderator David Turpin, are placing B.C. far from the pole position as jurisdictions across North America race to build new innovative economies on the economic foundations that survived the recession.

“It speaks to the importance of immigration,” said Turpin, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Victoria. “It speaks to the importance of reaching out to the world and indicating that B.C. is a place for the best and brightest to come. Like modern economies everywhere, B.C. is counting on innovation and technology to raise productivity and help shape a bright and prosperous future.”

He noted that a decade ago, B.C. ranked last among provinces in the per-capita number of university spaces.

Increased government investment in post-secondary education has raised the province’s standing a bit, Turpin added, “but we still have a long way to go to get to the top of the pack.”

Arvind Gupta, scientific director and CEO of the Mathematics of Information Technology & Complex Systems (MITACS) program at Simon Fraser University, said foreign students and workers will be key to increasing innovation in B.C. and elsewhere in Canada, where the labour force is projected to have a shortfall of half a million “knowledge” workers in the next decade.

“We have no choice but to go outside [B.C. and Canada].”

Gupta noted, however, that B.C. is not on the radar of foreign university graduates searching for a place to start their career.

“They think of Canada and British Columbia as a place for tourism and a place where there’s lots of natural resources, but not a place where there is a high-tech industry and a biotech industry.”

He pointed to Australia and Silicon Valley as jurisdictions whose success has been built partly on initiatives to recruit and retain foreign workers.

Roughly 15 years ago, Australia began to aggressively recruit university students from abroad and develop them into highly-skilled workers.

Today, Australia has four times as many foreign students as Canada, and this year spending by foreign workers will be the country’s largest source of foreign income.

Gupta also noted that 25% of companies in Silicon Valley are started by someone who moved there from abroad.

“Silicon Valley was essentially built by attracting really bright people to the University of California system and deploying them to go out and start and build companies.”

If Canada is to climb above 12th among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in terms of the number of master’s and PhD students per capita, Gupta said “we have to figure out how to make ourselves the premier destination for these very bright people.

“And British Columbia is not faring well in the national context.”

Michael Gallagher, president and COO of Westport Innovations Inc. (TSX:WPT; Nasdaq:WPRT), cited a long list of challenges the company faced during the last 13 years as it commercialized its university-borne technology for converting diesel engines into cleaner, more-efficient liquid natural-gas engines. Among those challenges was finding graduates in Canada that were trained in automotive and clean technologies.

“So we ended up having to go worldwide,” said Gallagher.

Jayson Myers, president and CEO of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, said manufacturers continue to face competition from jurisdictions such as Asia, which can trump Canada on production costs.

Canada and B.C.’s advantage, said Myers, could lie in their ability to develop more specialized products and services out of their abundant resources.

To create a Canadian catalogue of such value-added products, Myers said Canada needs strong private- and public-sector leadership and more intellectual property – something the nation might also have to look abroad for if its domestic innovation shortfall continues.