Study From Waterloo Grads Details Canadian Brain Drain

Ontario students graduating in technology fields are entering a landscape that features the fastest growing tech market in North America. It seems natural that any potential jobseeker, especially one who attended post-secondary in the country, would stay.

But a small study penned by two local grads is illustrating what some in the industry have already seen firsthand: Canadian brain drain exists, and it’s going straight to the US.

Atef Chaudhury and Joey Loi are University of Waterloo systems design engineering (SYDE) graduates. They surveyed their graduating class of 82 last month (receiving 77 responses) and asked a number of questions, with some based around job prospects and co-op experiences. Chaudhury and Loi stress that the results are not to be extrapolated upon, but they offer an interesting look into a technology grads mind and the curious case of Canadian brain drain.

Students in SYDE had to take six co-ops where they worked out of a classroom to obtain real world experience. Six might seem like a lot, but many students have to take some form of co-op in their educational tenure. The study found that co-op is what drove their program’s graduates to take full time jobs outside of Canada.

By the final co-op term, 40 per cent of the class was working in the US. Waterloo-based co-ops peaked at 30 per cent in the student’s first placement and steadily declined since then. Toronto jobs followed a similar trajectory, falling from 70 to 40 per cent. It’s clear that as students became more skilled, they left the country for other jobs.

Figures show how many students went abroad for co-ops.
This graph details how many SYDE students worked co-ops in the US.

“Co-op replicates a realistic job search process,” says Loi. “Make the internships in Toronto or other areas more enticing. One of the ways to do so is matching pay. We need it for tuition and also almost as a status symbol.”

The study found that the salary gap between the US and Canada was significant. An average co-op job with our neighbours to the south paid $49.40 an hour. Here at home, the average sat at a paltry $25.40 an hour. Six out of ten students with a full time job at the time of graduation were working with a company they did a co-op with, so it’s important to entice possible talent and do what you can to keep them there.

Students often want to pursue jobs in the hotbeds of places like San Francisco and Seattle because they are home to companies they love and use everyday. Facebook, Tesla, Apple and more call those places home, and because they are innovative and trendy, they are naturally alluring to new grads

According to Loi and Chaudhury, another way to keep students around is increasing the mentorship and amount of talented workers in the country.

“There’s a mentorship aspect. The perception exists that if you go to these bigger companies you’re going to get exposure to better people to network and get more opportunities for you, which is not the same for Canadian companies,” says Chaudhury. “If there were more high profile hires in Canada, engineers or others coming from the valley that would an attracting point.”

Sometimes the “should I stay or should I go” feeling becomes frustrating.

“Staying in Canada would be preferable in a lot of ways, but it just doesn’t feel like Canadian tech companies are doing the right things to match the US, at least on the salary end,” says Chaudhury. “At worse it just pisses you off, because why would I want to work for you when you’re not going to value me the same way another place is going to value me?”

When comparing the top 50 tech markets in North America, Toronto and Vancouver offer the best value for high-quality tech talent. But the lower than average wages don’t give Canadian grads a strong argument to stay.

Canadian tech companies hear these concerns loud and clear though. They are trying to keep grads in Canada and spread awareness of the innovative and inspiring things happening in their own backyard. Communitech is a facilitator in Waterloo’s amazing tech ecosystem and helps companies grow and succeed. Heather Galt is Communitech VP of talent initiatives and also teaches.

“I encourage my students to go and have that opportunity for international experience. It benefits the individual and Canada,” she explains. “I actually believe that going and having those expat opportunities is a fantastic part of how we as a country will build opportunities internally within our own country.”

The vision many in the Canadian tech field see is that students will work abroad, then hopefully return to their home country and start companies or contribute at a high level.

“The Canadians that I talk to in the Valley and Seattle, they have an incredible sense of pride. They miss home and love Canada,” says Galt. “We need to encourage our companies, our schools and our students to share stories with one another to get excited. It shouldn’t be out of a sense of duty—in my mind it should be that you really believe and really want to be a part of what’s coming.”

Some studies have even shown the opposite of what these two Waterloo grads have found, which cloud a potential brain drain dilemma even more.

Either way, the results shared by Chaudhury and Loi may not be indicative of what every student in the country feels, but it is important to spot potential trends like this and have companies react before it is too late. At the very least it may be a reminder for Canadian tech companies to realize and appreciate the talent that exists in their own cities and start treating homegrown workers more appropriately.

If you want to read the full study, you can do so here.