What It Takes for Tech Ecosystems to Bring (and Keep) Foreign Talent

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Every tech ecosystem depends on talent to succeed — and the competition for this talent is fierce. Attracting the kind of foreign talent that will build strong scaleup ecosystems takes new policies, inventive processes and an enlightened approach to immigration.

During a panel discussion at the recent Drive Conference, hosted by Hockeystick and the Lazaridis Institute in Waterloo, technology workers who have managed to navigate various immigration programs described a system that presents challenges both to the would-be employees as well as the scaleups that desperately want to hire them.

Referring to one Canadian immigration program in particular, Andres Ivanov, a DevOps specialist with messaging service TextNow said, "You actually have to fax in your form to Service Canada,” drawing laughs from the crowd over a communications technology that has been on the wane for more than a decade.

While there are many foreign workers who have the coding or IT skills that scaleups need, Ilya Brotzky, founder and CEO of tech recruiting firm VanHack, said the intricacies of migrating to Canada are confusing to companies. This is in stark contrast to what he and his peers have experienced  in other ecosystems.

“In Germany or the Netherlands, they say, ‘Oh, you’re a developer? You have a job offer? Here’s a visa,'" said Brotzky.




Accessing Foreign Talent

Frances Hannigan, senior immigration consultant at the University of Waterloo, suggested some scaleups simply aren’t aware of the programs and options available to them to access foreign talent. In particular she highlighted Canada's Global Talent Stream, which has been running since 2017 and was made permanent in the 2019 federal budget. It allows certain skilled workers to obtain a work permit within two weeks of applying. In some cases, she said, potential foreign workers might not meet the educational requirements for the Global Talent Stream but, if based in Ontario, could opt for the Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program.

“It costs a little more, it takes a little longer, but it’s there,” she said.

The situation is mystifying to people like Irene Katzela, chief architect & co-founder at blockchain-focused startup Velocia, who moderated the panel discussion. Gone are the days, she suggested, when a standard undergraduate degree is the only way to confirm someone is qualified for a scaleup job.

“We are in a completely different environment now,” she said. “I’ve met so many programmers who are self-taught. We have so many tools out there (to learn tech skills) today. It’s just that we haven’t always figured out how to quantify those skills in a way that’s comfortable for us.”


Watch the full panel discussion Immigrating Talent: Policy, Process, Support


Innovating Immigration

Fortunately, the same ingenuity that leads to innovative new products, services and business models is being applied to immigration issues too. Last year,  VanHack started hosting what it calls VanHack Leap, where it brings in 20 senior developers from around the world who are ready and willing to move to Canada. Besides making introductions to potential employers, VanHack partners with consulting firm EY to help expedite the immigration and visa paperwork.

According to Brotzky, there is still an advantage in attending a job interview via videoconferencing to ensure Canadian employers and candidates find the right fit. “We’ve found having the in-person interaction can really increase the chances of a hire happening,” he said.

Though Canada’s scaleups will no doubt do more research as they try to address hard-to-fill roles, Hannigan said she hopes the government will continue to develop additional programs to build on the Global Talent Stream and close the gaps that make it difficult for foreign workers to build a career here.


The Talent War Continues

More than 216,000 new tech jobs will need to be filled across Canada by 2021, according to research by the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC). Accelerated forms of education like coding bootcamps and new college-university partnerships offering courses in high-demand fields like data science, web development, cyber security and user experience design are ramping up to help meet the skills shortage. But they are only part of the solution.

“Our students alone are not enough,” said Hannigan. “From an employment perspective, we have so much to give back.”

With the global talent war only intensifying, every ecosystem must find new ways to find and retain the workers who will help build a stronger tech economy.