Ottawa could soon speed up hiring of foreign tech workers

Canada’s federal government says it will work harder to reduce agonizingly long wait times for fast-growing technology companies trying to hire foreign talent.

According to the Globe and Mail, the government launched its innovation strategy with “yet another consultation process that was long on broad themes and short on specifics,” on Tuesday. It identified six areas where it will seek public input this summer, including building clusters and making it easier to do business in Canada.

“We want to make innovation a national priority,” Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, told reporters.

Specifically, Bains and the other ministers agreed that reducing waiting times for growing tech firms trying to hire skilled foreigners will be “a key component” of the plan.

It’s a pain point that startups in Canada have all felt sensitively. A growing startup wants to hire a perfect candidate in another country only to find government red tape stalling the process. Months later while still waiting on the federal government’s approval, the candidate informs the startup he/she has taken a position elsewhere.

“We have all heard too many horror stories of agile companies facing challenges when trying to bring in bright new employees to support business growth and opportunities,” Small Business Minister Bardish Chagger told the Globe and Mail. “Highly skilled workers, researchers and entrepreneurs should be welcomed in Canada in higher volumes and at a faster rate than other OECD countries.”

As part of the previous government’s Express Entry Program, Employers offering jobs to foreigners must get government approval for a “Labour Market Impact Assessment” [LMIA] showing they couldn’t find Canadians to do the job.

Fast-growing tech firms looking for the find candidates with the right skills often look outside Canada, and six months can clearly be a problem. “Some frustrated employers instead hired people to work outside Canada, or stopped looking for skilled foreigners altogether,” wrote the Globe.

“The fact that the government was embarrassed by the number of low-skilled [foreign] workers working in, for example, a food outlet doesn’t really address [the issue],” immigration lawyer Bruce Harwood told Business in Vancouver. “You’ve got demand for highly skilled workers in various industries … and you can’t find those people to fill those jobs.”

Immigration Minister John McCallum said that abolishing the LMIA requirement could be one option the government could take. “We are generally on the lookout for ways … to make our programs more effective in attracting people to Canada rather than having them go elsewhere,” he said.

For many fast-growing tech firms, said McCallum, “their idea of a quick [immigration] processing time is more like six days rather than six months… obviously, I will be working very hard to try to accommodate their needs as best I can.”

Interesingly, Harwood told Business in Vancouver that not enough companies are looking at exemptions in free trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

“For example, a ‘computer systems analyst’ – a catch-all term under the NAFTA professional category — would allow many tech workers to skip the lengthy labour market impact assessment (LMIA) process. An American with the necessary credentials and a written offer of employment from a Canadian employer could instead apply at a port of entry to immediately enter into the domestic workforce without an LMIA document.”

On a positive note, Canada is negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union, which could be signed as early as this year. That would give Canadian companies easier access to workers in that continent.

Quebec companies face a different set of rules than the rest of Canada, as the process of immigration to Quebec exists outside the federal Express Entry immigration selection system. Once a candidate to Quebec’s Skilled Worker Program (CSQ) receives approval at the provincial level, their application is submitted at the federal level for medical and security checks. This is because a worker’s chances of being selected by Quebec depends on their ability and willingness to settle, work and adapt to life in the province.

As well, the federal government’s Startup Visa program does not apply to Quebec-based companies.

For some Quebec-based startups, not only is timing a large problem, but also a startup’s financial profile that prohibits it from getting the right employees it needs.

Jeffrey Dungen, the CEO of Montreal startup reelyActive, failed to bring over two foreign hires over the past three years because of a myriad of issues. In 2013 he tried to hire an “amazing tech guy” from Serbia, but the company didn’t technically have enough cash to support the hire over the long term.

Commenting on the federal government, he called the typical six-month wait time for foreign workers “a challenge.”

“I’m glad that they’re speeding this up. It’s an important consideration, but there are more fundamental problems with tech worker immigration [in Quebec] that need to be addressed,” he told MTLinTECH.

Last year, reelyActive tried to hire a Brazilian tech worker who “checked all the boxes for coming into Canada, he was exactly the profile we’re looking for in immigration.” But because the startup didn’t have the financial security the Quebec government demanded, the visa was rejected. Strangely, around the same time Dungen started the same foreign visa process with a French candidate. His application was accepted by Quebec’s government.

“Two people. Very similar qualifications. Same time. One coming from France, no problem, fast-tracked in. Another coming from Brazil but the response was, ‘I’m sorry, but your company is too poor,'” said Dungen.

“The federal’s government’s timing issue is certainly less than ideal,” said Dungen. “But in our case in Quebec, the bigger block is can you actually get qualified people in, especially if you’re a smaller company that doesn’t fit into the models that they’re looking for, knowing full well that if your company isn’t successful, that person is going to get a great job elsewhere and will be so happy you went through the visa for them.”

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