Immigration policies lure Microsoft north

Software giant opens B.C. development centre

When Microsoft announced it was opening a development centre in British Columbia, creating hundreds of jobs in the process, some media reports and critics suggested it was posturing by the software giant to put pressure on the United States government to remove limits on skilled immigrants.

But Tami Lamp, an HR director at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash., said the company has long had an eye on Canada’s IT talent pool, insisting that was the number-one reason behind the opening of its first-ever development centre north of the border in Richmond, B.C.

The Microsoft Canada Development Centre, which opens on Sept. 10 with about 50 employees and will grow to 500 in the next year, is part of a long-term business strategy by the company.

“Canada is number two or three in terms of strength of technology talent worldwide,” said Lamp.

In a press release, Microsoft also said the Vancouver area is a global gateway with a diverse population, three hours’ drive from Microsoft’s headquarters, and the location allows the company to recruit and retain highly skilled people affected by immigration issues in the U.S.

“One key point for us was that Vancouver is in the same time zone. We will look at expanding other research and development centers in other areas of Canada,” said Lamp.

Currently Microsoft runs sales and marketing offices in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax.

When asked how large a role Canada’s less restrictive immigration laws played in the move, Lamp said: “What’s important to us is attracting and retaining the best talent possible. Microsoft is a global organization and we need to be exposed to skill sets worldwide.”

In general, Canada has more liberal immigration laws than the U.S., said Jeffrey Lowe, a Vancouver-based immigration and business lawyer with Lowe & Co.

“And there is no quota system in Canada for visas from specific countries,” said Lowe.

Lynda Leonard, senior vice-president at the Ottawa-based Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), said the move is “hugely positive” for the IT industry as well as for the soft skill sets, including HR, that accompany expansion in the research and development sectors of the industry.

While many of the initial positions are being offered to Canadian expatriates working in Microsoft’s Redmond offices, said Lamp, many more opportunities will go to both national and international candidates. She added that Microsoft received a 100-per-cent acceptance rate from tech graduates from the University of British Columbia who were offered positions this year.

While Canada may have strong tech talent, the pool is shrinking and the industry continues to experience talent shortages, according to Coming of Age: 2007 TechTalent Pulse Survey Report by ITAC and Deloitte Canada. Participants reported research and development skills are the most difficult to find. In addition, more than 60 per cent expect to face a high or moderate shortage of innovation and creative talent and 90 per cent expect to find it tough to find technically skilled talent over the next three to five years.

Both Leonard and Lamp said there are fewer graduates from North American schools in technical fields such as mathematics, science and engineering. And, according to the report, while there is student demand for information technology and technical training, “educational institutions are having a hard time keeping up, seriously curbing the supply of qualified graduates.”

Canada’s emphasis on multiculturalism, and its fluid visa conditions, underscore a unique opportunity to grow businesses by recruiting the most highly skilled people worldwide, said Leonard.

However, a company wishing to hire foreign workers must obtain a labour market opinion. Processing times vary across Canada — anywhere from three to four weeks in Ontario to 20 weeks in Alberta, said Lowe.

To obtain an opinion, the employer must show that hiring the person does not have a negative effect on the Canadian labour market. Then, with a labour market opinion, the foreign worker can apply for work permits at a Canadian immigration office, which can take anywhere from one day to four months.

Certain kinds of work permits are exempt from the labour market opinion, said Lowe. Microsoft can use the exemption for U.S. and Mexican citizens under NAFTA to bring software engineers, accountants and other kinds of engineers and professionals to Canada.

“It could also use this to transfer executives under the intra-company transferee category,” said Lowe.

Microsoft could use another labour market opinion exemption for other types of technology workers to bring employees in from India, Philippines and other countries outside North America, said Lowe.

“(But) it is more expensive for a company to bring in foreign workers than to hire Canadians,” he said.

Lesley Young is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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