A Canadian visa won’t cut it for Vancouver’s tech talent

October 10, 20175 Minute Read

Think an accelerated Canadian visa process will help fill that desk next to you? Think again.

The predicted exodus of US technology workers due to that country’s immigration law reform could be a boon to cities with a shortage of tech talent. But as you well know, there’s more to hiring and retaining the best people, especially in major centres where the cost of living is sky high.

Vancouver is one city that’s particularly hungry for experienced people. Making it easy for international tech workers to obtain a Canadian visa could satisfy that hunger, but it faces other recruitment challenges as its tech sector booms—even as the provincial government looks to streamline its immigration support.

Some thought that the Canadian workforce and the tech sector in particular could benefit from a Trump presidency before he was elected. The trouble is that getting into Canada isn’t the only hurdle to jump. Even if getting a Canadian work permit becomes easier for international tech talent, high cost centres like Vancouver still have to compete for workers with the US and other major centres in Canada, including Toronto, Montreal, and the Kitchener-Waterloo area. And let’s be real: It also has to compensate employees for the city’s high cost of living.

West coast lifestyle draws talent

There’s no question that Lower Mainland of British Columbia is a hotspot for tech companies, particularly startups. Among the biggest in Vancouver are the major telecom players: Shaw, Telus, Bell and Rogers. Social media management leader Hootsuite also makes its home there, and Vision Critical is growing quickly with its customer intelligence platform. The University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University are also sources of new companies through technology commercialization initiatives.

Commercial Real Estate Research (CBRE) reports that of 50 US and Canadian markets, Vancouver was the most inexpensive city to start up a new tech company, according to Digital Journal. But although running a tech company in Lotus Land costs less than half of what it does in tech mecca San Francisco, per the CBRE report, attracting workers is tough because the cost of living there is extremely high.

Vancouver offers many pros and cons for tech workers. An Ipsos global survey released in July named it the third most livable city in the world, while the lower-priced Canadian dollar translates into lower startup costs. But Digital Journal reports that the average salary of a tech worker in Vancouver is $34,000 to $44,000 less than they would receive for similar work in Seattle or San Francisco. The city has yet to attract a big US anchor, although multinationals such as Amazon and Microsoft have recently opened offices there. Ultimately, one of Vancouver’s biggest competitive advantages is the lifestyle that comes from being close to the ocean, mountains and nature, something few other cities can offer.

Vancouver’s Canadian visa process gets a concierge

Immigration policies south of the border combined with Canada’s response are just one of Vancouver’s competitive advantages, and the province is trying to make the most of it.

In March, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service suspended all expedited H-1B visa processing for up to six months. Canada’s response? The Minister of Innovation went on record to say the feds would accelerate the Canadian visa process to pull in highly skilled workers from other countries. Its new Global Talent Stream program will slash the processing time for immigration from months to two weeks, the government claims.

The BC Tech Association (BC Tech) is greasing the wheels by acting as concierge and referring local companies to IRCC’s Dedicated Service Channel and to ESDC’s Global Talent Stream.

But it still costs big bucks to live in Vancouver.

Tech recruitment goes deluxe

Attracting top talent involves some creativity. Some companies are reducing the hours required in the office, upping vacation time, and even rewarding employees financially for taking time off. Other rewards include luxury cars. But whether it’s through incentives or an accelerated Canadian work permit application process, competition for talent in the province’s tech industry will remain fierce. BC Tech estimates that by 2021 there will be 35,000 jobs needing to be filled.

And what about those cities that don’t have beautiful mountain views and nearby forests for stress-reducing nature escapes? Canadian CIOs have recently admitted to Robert Half Technology that they miss out on top tech talent because candidates are seeking higher salaries than they’re able to offer, so they’re putting other perks on the table. Results from a survey released in the summer found the most common barrier to landing the best candidates is not being able to meet salary demands (30 percent), followed by not finding enough qualified applicants (26 percent) and not being seen as an employer of choice (22 percent).

CIOs say bonus or stock options, the ability to learn and grow, and opportunities to advance can be extremely important to jobseekers if pay is a little less than ideal. Opportunities to work on interesting projects, vacation time, being able to use new and innovative technology, remote working options, an a unique office environment are also draws for new talent.

Nationally, Canada has always had to compete with Silicon Valley for tech talent, although last year’s Talent Buzz 2016 report from LinkedIn found that the flow of people south of the border had stabilized, and it was too early to tell what impact a Trump presidency might have. In the spring, the Information and Communications Technology Council’s Labour Market Outlook 2017-2021 indicated Canada will need to fill approximately 216,000 technology-related positions by 2021—up from 2015 predictions of 182,000 by 2019—and that a shortage of skilled labourers is hindering the country’s growth potential.

The reality is the tech talent shortage in Canada has been a perennial challenge for more than two decades. Might as well get used to that empty chair and long hours. It may be a while—but we’re working on it.

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