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B.C. Premier Clark urges Ottawa to fix tech talent gap

B.C Premier Christy Clark’s call adds to those from tech companies pressing Ottawa to streamline the immigration process so they can more readily recruit top foreign talent.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

B.C. Premier Christy Clark is pressing Ottawa to open the floodgates for high-skilled foreign tech workers to immigrate to Canada, saying her province's burgeoning tech sector faces an acute shortage of talent to fill thousands of jobs.

"Let's let more smart people in," Ms. Clark said during an interview last week. "If the federal government is absolutely serious about improving innovation … they will change the way that we do immigration."

The Premier's call adds to those from fast-growing tech companies across Canada who have put pressure on the Liberal government to speed up and streamline the immigration process so they can more readily recruit top foreign talent. They say that unless the government dramatically shortens visa-processing times for foreign programmers, researchers and tech executives, they will lose out to other countries for talent needed to help grow their business and create jobs here.

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"Everyone here is desperate for developers," particularly those with several years of experience leading teams, said Danielle Lovell, co-founder of Blankslate Partners, a Vancouver human-resources outsourcing company that helps tech firms with foreign hires. "Those people are in incredibly short supply. That's where we see technology companies turning to the foreign market. … Now, best case, it takes 3 months to get that person here. That is a lifetime in a startup."

Many would-be foreign hires face a drawn-out, bureaucratic process typically lasting six months to a year to process their applications. A key issue is that under the government's express-entry system, employers must show when seeking to hire a foreign worker that they have first made every effort to fill the job with Canadians, through a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA). But many tech employers say the LMIA process needlessly delays or thwarts their efforts to hire from a small, highly in-demand pool of uniquely experienced talent. Several Canadian tech companies have resorted to opening offices or expanding employment abroad instead of Canada because of the immigration constraints at home, representing a lost taxation source for governments here.

Andrew Booth, chief financial officer with privately held STEMCELL Technologies, a Vancouver maker of equipment and materials used in life-science research, said at the rate his 900-person company is growing, "we'll add 3,000 jobs in the next 10 years. Our big challenge is where to get [those employees] from? We hire from Canadian universities but we're going to need more people with global experience and leaders in their field."

Streamlining the [immigration process] and increasing total immigration "makes a world of sense" for his and other companies. Mr. Booth and other Canadian tech executives have made their case in recent weeks directly to Immigration Minister John McCallum to streamline the immigration process in round tables in Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver organized by the Council of Canadian Innovators, a lobby group representing emerging Canadian tech firms.

"The scale-up community is very active on this file because it's critical to our global growth," said CCI executive director Benjamin Bergen. "I am confident that [meetings with the minister] will result in the tech industry getting better access to the world's best talent."

A spokeswoman for Mr. McCallum said "addressing processing times is a priority and the minister has said that eliminating the LMIA for certain sectors‎ is something he would look at" as it reviews the express-entry system this fall. She declined to comment on potential policy changes.

For the B.C. Premier, a key sticking point is the provincial nominee program, under which provinces are entitled by Ottawa to bypass the LMIA process to fast-track the most sought-after foreign employees. Last year, when B.C. surpassed its cap of 5,500 nominees, Ottawa let the province raise its cap to 5,800 workers. That higher number is still not nearly enough, she said.

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"We're bursting at the seams, in terms of applications for this," Ms. Clark said of her province, which has the country's fastest growing economy and whose tech sector employs 92,700 people – more than mining, oil and gas and forestry sectors combined. She suggested Ottawa "could add a few thousand more to our cap" based on feedback from B.C. tech chief executive officers. "There's no logic to [the cap] whatsoever. Why would you constrain economic growth of the best-performing economy in the country?"

The push for more highly skilled foreigners comes at an uneasy time in the face of rising tensions over immigration issues across the developed world. Mr. McCallum recently said "almost all" Canadians he has met during recent consultations told him to boost immigration targets (Canada welcomes approximately 250,000 foreign newcomers each year). That contradicts internal polling conducted by his department showing Canadians are content with current targets.

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About the Author

Sean Silcoff joined The Globe and Mail in January, 2012, following an 18-year-career in journalism and communications. He previously worked as a columnist and Montreal correspondent for the National Post and as a staff writer at Canadian Business Magazine, where he was project co-ordinator of the magazine's inaugural Rich 100 list. More

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