Give us your poor, your hungry — your high-tech workers

U.S. adds to Canadian shortage
By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/05/2001

In a move expected to seriously hamper the ability of Canadian businesses to find high-tech talent, legislators in Washington are almost certain to pass a bill before the new year that will nearly double the number of IT professionals who can enter the United States from other countries.

There has been much pulling of hair and wringing of hands about the U.S. stealing Canadian employees. To address Canada’s own shortage of at least 40,000 IT professionals, organizations have been stealing talent from Europe and emerging high-tech hot spots like India and the Far East, a practice facilitated by simpler immigration policies.

But U.S. businesses have been complaining that they aren’t able to import staff in the same way, effectively handcuffed by unreasonable restrictions on the numbers of H1-B visas being issued by the government. The H1-B is the visa used to fast-track technology workers into the country.

This year about 115,000 H1-Bs were issued, but as many as 800,000 high-tech jobs went unfilled and businesses have been lobbying hard for a dramatic increase in the number of visas issued to address the shortfall. While the final number could change as the details of the bill are hammered out, it is likely an extra 85,000 visas will be issued next year.

Since Canadians can already get into the U.S. under the terms of NAFTA, it will have no impact on the numbers of Canadians heading south of the border, said Paul Swinwood of the Software Human Resources Council. “What it does have a major impact on is in the number of other nationals who want to come to North America. It now cuts into our ability to recruit,” he said.

When businesses are looking for workers from around the world and numbers going into the U.S. nearly double, that is going to hurt Canadian businesses. Even organizations that don’t recruit overseas — still the large majority of Canadian companies — are likely going to see a trickle-down effect.

“Initially it has the huge potential to impact the number of technology workers Canada can either attract or retain,” said Silvia Valdman, an Ottawa-based immigration lawyer. But Canada has things to offer immigrant workers that the U.S. does not, including a higher standard of living, as well as a greater chance of getting permanent status in Canada. It is still very difficult to get permanent status in the U.S., said Valdman. While living in Canada, immigrants, can apply for permanent status — it is typically just a matter of process and once they get permanent status it is easier to bring family to join them.

Increased competition for high-tech workers should force employers to rethink how they treat immigrant employees, she said. “Employers can’t treat foreign workers as a number anymore,” said Valdman. Instead, an effort has to be made to help the new worker adjust to a new home. Culturally, many workers find it difficult to settle in, but if the employer is sensitive to those difficulties and provides them with cultural counsellors or contacts with their ethnic community in the area, they are more likely to develop a loyalty that will keep them in Canada.

“Culturally they have issues, even if they are making six figures, but by finding out about what resources are available to them and what stresses they may face you’ll be more likely to keep them from leaving for the U.S.”

Some businesses have started to realize the need to adopt a holistic approach when recruiting high-tech workers. “Employers still have a long way to go to help people adjust,” she said.

Swinwood also said Canada has to do more to attract technology workers to Canada.

“The U.S. is perceived as the place to go,” he said, adding that has more to do with image than substance. “Visibility is one of our biggest problems. It’s all marketing. Canada is reticent to market itself as a great place to work.”

Employers should also do more on their own to be proactive in recruiting high-tech talent. It’s essential to do strategic planning, he said. “Figure out what they really need and figure it out at least a year in advance because that’s the lead time for technology workers now.”

And companies looking for high-tech talent should also do a better job at home. Any business that shows up at a university on graduation day and hopes to recruit graduates is going to be out of luck, he said. Companies need to start sponsoring students while they are in school, paying tuition in return for a three- or even five-year commitment to the business after they graduate.

But David Perry of Perry-Martel International, an Ottawa executive search firm specializing in technology, said competition is so fierce now that American firms are happy to pay the penalty for the employees that bail out on a contract early if it means they can lure them south of the border.

What’s more, “the reasons that kept people here no longer apply,” he said. Many American cities have become cleaner and safer than a lot of Canadian cities and the benefit of universal health care becomes meaningless for high-tech workers who will have every health concern cared for by the employer, he said.

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