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Talent finds a fast track to Canadian startups

Yishay Waxman, left, founder of Platterz, calls the global skills visa program the ‘best thing that happened to my company.’ With him is Petra Axolotl, a data scientist originally from the Netherlands.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

A pilot project that allows high-growth companies to bring in foreign talent more easily has been working remarkably well since its June launch, say firms and applicants who have taken advantage of the federal initiative.

Toronto startup founder Yishay Waxman, for example, calls the federal government's global skills visa program the "best thing that happened to my company."

Mr. Waxman's company, Platterz, used the program to bring in three specialized foreign workers to help the catering service scale up its business. "They elevate the rest of the team, they elevate the product. We're flying now," he says.

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That's surely music to the federal government's ears. It launched the global skills visa program – also known as the Global Talent Stream – on June 12 to mitigate Canada's shortage of tech workers.

The $7.8-million, 24-month pilot project set a lofty service goal: It promised to treat applications within two weeks, a time frame that was met with some skepticism when first unveiled.

However, project participants say the government has so far held to that schedule. The government wouldn't comment on specific figures, but an unofficial source said "hundreds" of initial approvals had been granted under the new visa program.

"Doing the application is really easy," says Shaida Gani, who handled two visa applications for her former employer, Toronto software startup EventMobi. One worker arrived in Canada within 30 days of pressing the "submit" button on the visa application form.

That's a remarkable time savings compared to the old way of hiring foreign talent, which entailed extensive delays – sometimes up to a year – that frequently resulted in the candidate going to another company. It wasn't unusual for applications to be refused on a minor error that could have been easily remedied had the process been more transparent, says Ms. Gani.

She does caution, however, that employers should triple check to ensure candidates' paperwork is in order before applying. That means a valid passport, translated documents, proof of English proficiency and, for people from certain countries, medical tests.

Still, from the candidate's perspective, the process also appears to be fairly simple and streamlined, especially when compared to the United States' H1B visa lottery.

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Petra Axolotl, a data scientist from the Netherlands hired by Platterz, lost the H1B lottery while working for Twitter on a U.S. student visa. So she compared several other countries, including Australia and New Zealand, before deciding on Canada. "It feels like there are more career opportunities here in Canada," she says, noting that Canada's progressive politics also swayed her decision.

Her Global Talent Stream application was processed within 10 business days. Coming from a visa-exempt country, all she had to do was get her electronic travel authorization at the airport the day of her flight to Toronto. Meanwhile, Ms. Axolotl's concurrent application for permanent-resident status has also been approved, meaning she can stay in Canada after her work permit expires.

The Global Talent Stream is designed to help innovative companies grow faster at home, which has historically been difficult given Canada's tech-talent shortage.

Chris Plunkett, the vice-president of external relations at Waterloo, Ont., tech hub Communitech, says some Canadian companies previously dealt with visa woes by setting up foreign offices to accommodate a specific worker – and then hiring a big team to work under that person.

This not only constitutes a lost job-creation opportunity for Canada, but having foreign offices can also dilute a company's commitment to remaining in Canada. "It makes it easier for them to relocate entirely down the road," says Mr. Plunkett.

With the Global Talent Stream, companies no longer have to prove there isn't a single Canadian who can do the job for which they're hiring. Instead, they're asked to demonstrate how new hires would improve the Canadian labour market – for example, by assigning paid Canadian co-op students to work under the foreign hire.

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That change is a major relief for high-growth companies including Waterloo-based wearables startup Thalmic Labs Inc. Victoria Baskerville, of Thalmic's culture and talent department, notes the company is continuously recruiting, so it's already deeply familiar with what kind of talent is and isn't available in Canada. "I looked at our [website's] careers page earlier today. We have almost 50 positions posted," says Ms. Baskerville.

Thalmic, which consulted with the government on the creation of the Global Talent Stream, has made four applications under the project.

According to Naumaan Hameed, a lawyer and immigration specialist with KPMG, the biggest stumbling block of the Global Talent Stream so far has been figuring out what tangible spinoff effects foreign candidates will have on the company and on the labour market over all.

"Some companies find it challenging to be able to project the number of new jobs or tangible figures of revenue, simply because there's always an element of uncertainty [with startups]," he says.

Still, failure to prove measurable outcomes on a continuing basis could get a company barred from the program. "So, time will tell in terms of what actually is completed by employers at the six-month and 12-month mark," says Mr. Hameed.

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