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Business Commentary Canada needs to fast-track immigration to bring in crucial tech talent

"We're moving to Canada."

In media coverage and casual conversations with CEOs, investors and skilled professionals, this sentiment is brought up constantly. I'm not surprised. With the state of the European Union after the Brexit vote, and the possibility of a Trump presidency in the United States, it's easy to see why people might look to Canada as a haven from the uncertainty bubbling around the world.

While some people are clearly exaggerating their desire to pull up stakes, there is evidence that many skilled professionals are seriously considering moving to Canada right now. This offers Canadian startups an unprecedented opportunity.

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It's clear that the startup sector wants access to hire top foreign talent. I recently joined Globe and Mail reporter Sean Silcoff, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Immigration Arif Virani and co-founder of Blankslate Partners Danielle Lovell at Startup Canada's Day on the Hill event to discuss the talent-acquisition challenges faced by startups.

The discussion was eye opening for Mr. Virani. He heard about the protectionist and cumbersome hoops that startups must jump through to get skilled workers for key roles. These range from nitpicking on forms to outright hostility from some government officials, who criticize these companies for their inability to find "the right Canadian."

It's not because of the startups' lack of effort. We're competing with the world for brain power. We're expecting to have to fill 182,000 information and communication technology positions by 2019. Unfortunately, homegrown talent will not be enough to fill these jobs.

Fast-tracking immigration for startups is a way to solve this.

For our innovation economy to thrive, government and industry need to work together. Canada produces all the right elements, but to remain competitive, we must take the right steps at pivotal moments. Attracting the right talent will determine whether our blossoming innovation hubs succeed or fail.

New Zealand and France are among the countries that have introduced fast-track programs to attract and retain tech talent. Internationally, demand for talent outpaces supply. In the United States alone, there are 1.42 job postings for every skilled technical job seeker. But every country competes fiercely for talented workers. Canada's Express Entry system usually keeps prospective employees waiting at least six months. In that amount of time, most applicants will have moved on to other opportunities. Our system is broken.

I have argued that Canada's leaders need to pivot our economy toward innovation. There are many reasons I believe this. For one, foreign labour in the innovation economy functions differently than it does in the industrial economy. In the industrial economy, foreign labour takes jobs away. In the innovation economy, bringing in the right talent from outside can create bigger and better companies, the network effects of which begin a virtuous cycle.

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At the panel discussion in Ottawa, Mr. Virani said creating a system that allows startups to bring in the right people in less than a month would be impossible.

I challenge him and Immigration Minister John McCallum to think like the innovation economy leaders who view impossible as a starting point. Together, we can reform this system and give Canadian startups another recruiting advantage.

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