Brexit. Trump. Le Pen. Voigt.
Whatever else these names conjure up, they also signal an opportunity for Canada. Quite simply, it's time to go prospecting for exceptional entrepreneurs, skilled talent and leading university researchers who, given a sales pitch and a choice, would consider relocating to a country that is politically stable, ethnically diverse and socially cohesive.
Canada is uniquely positioned to act. We value newcomers and what they have to offer. Our economy provides a reasonable degree of economic certainty in an uncertain and volatile world. And ours is a society with emerging entrepreneurial communities that have big aspirations – to build world-class innovation ecosystems and create world-class, innovative firms.
But opportunity does not equal reality unless it's seized and realized. And that means actively prospecting for such global talent in places such as Britain, the United States, France and Germany, to name several obvious targets.
Why now? Consider the uncertainty in Britain for promising startups and entrepreneurs in the London-Cambridge innovation ecosystem. Will they be able to access European markets for their products and services? Will they be eligible for EU research and technology funding? Will lending and risk capital dry up? Will their government cut funding for university and applied research?
The U.S. uncertainty is of a different type, but it's no less visceral for academic researchers, entrepreneurs and startup founders, particularly those working on visas.
And Germany and France, with strong technology cadres in business, may be less appealing today to startups, entrepreneurs and researchers who value a global, inclusive vision and worry about social cohesion.
This is not a "field of dreams" world where you build a relative economic and social advantage and talent pours in. Successful talent prospecting today is a combination of branding and sophisticated on-the-ground recruiting. It takes a comprehensive effort, holistic planning, a few locations to place your prospecting bets, a compelling narrative about "why relocate, why now" and dogged persistence.
In other words, we need a marketing campaign, which means getting over the Canadian distaste for self-promotion and taking advantage of the unique opportunity in front of us.
Specifically, we need to:
- Focus on three or four target geographies and two key talent audiences: Canadians living abroad and citizens of other countries working in these target geographies – both of whom are, increasingly, potential candidates to relocate.
- Encourage companies to recruit global talent more routinely, by targeting locations where top talent is known to reside.
- Make immigration for skilled talent simpler and faster than the United States, Britain and Australia, our competitors for global talent, and make the relocation process easier and more attractive.
- Make sure Canada is truly welcoming to entrepreneurs and skilled talent by removing artificial barriers to success, such as excessive recertification requirements for certain professions.
- Get better at telling stories of what’s happening here – our innovations and innovators, our interesting companies, communities and people. We need to build Canada’s global brand as a smart and caring country, with vibrant innovative ecosystems. Part of this is building the brands of our diverse and innovative communities where talented people actually live and work.
- Be willing to pay for exceptional global talent, realizing that such talent often makes more elsewhere. Let’s not position Canada as a “cheaper” place to live, but as a better one that happens to cost less, and where we’re willing to pay competitively to attract and retain talent.
In short, to be successful, we will need a Team Canada approach to talent prospecting that includes: startup founders; innovation hubs like Communitech, MaRS, the B.C. Technology Industry Association and Volta; and research university leaders who can talk about the strength of our system plus the strengths of their institutions.
It also includes high-tech business leaders providing reality benchmarking about doing business in Canada as well as the three levels of government extolling our relative economic and social attractiveness in a less stable world. There also needs to be a strong "ground game" in the selected target markets, with a sophisticated marketing pitch, credible spokespeople, adequate resources and a sustained prospecting plan. You seldom strike gold on the first day.
For Canada, the potential payoff to such talent prospecting is huge, the cost is more time and effort than dollars and the window of opportunity is relatively short.
Iain Klugman is CEO at Communitech. Kevin Lynch is vice-chair, Bank of Montreal, and former clerk of the Privy Council.