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A hand holds down a page of a passport while it is stamped. (Taolmor/Thinkstock)
A hand holds down a page of a passport while it is stamped. (Taolmor/Thinkstock)

Canada Competes

Where Canada stands in the global race for talent Add to ...

When Debarshi Nandy moved to Toronto from Calcutta, India, in 2004, he saw Canada as an ideal place to pursue the kind of career that his talents afforded. “I wanted to live in Toronto. It’s a diverse, multicultural city,” he says.

With a PhD in finance from Boston College and fluency in English, the 40-year-old is the kind of job candidate that many nations are trying to attract.

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“Countries are looking at what others are doing,” says John Shields, professor in the department of politics and public administration at Ryerson University in Toronto. “There’s definitely a trend among [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries in terms of competition for immigrants.”

Businesses from industries such as information technology, manufacturing and construction have grown increasingly vocal over what they say is a growing shortage of skilled workers. According to a recent C-suite survey, two-thirds of Canadian executives say they are having trouble finding qualified workers, and one-third say this is slowing the growth of their business. The survey of 151 executives was conducted for The Globe and Mail and Business News Network by Gandalf Group and sponsored by KPMG.

Employers from developed nations are now searching abroad in hopes of filling their ranks. “Often it’s much cheaper to take labour from developing countries,” Dr. Shields says. “Many have a very highly educated population.” This larger talent pool gives businesses more choice, particularly in fields of high demand where Canadian schools have been unable to keep up.

Policy makers in many countries have been responding with targeted immigration systems that place less emphasis on family and humanitarian migration, and more on the recruitment of people with valued skill sets.

For instance, Australia has made it easier for developers of major resource projects to recruit from abroad in order to prevent labour supply bottlenecks, according to an OECD study on international migration. New Zealand, too, introduced a new immigration act in November of 2010, that established interim visas, and strengthened its sponsorship system. Since 2008, Britain, Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands have all introduced points-based systems similar to Canada’s, which grant temporary migrants a path to citizenship based on employability.

Fortunately for Canada, the global recession has forced many nations to temporarily put the brakes on their initiatives, because of a drop in domestic labour demands, and an increase in anti-immigration sentiment. Consequently, this may be a good time for Canadian companies to look abroad.

“[Europe] still needs to fill some very high-end niches,” Dr. Shields says, “but they’ve also been sending signals to other immigrants that it’s not such a welcoming place. Canada is very well positioned, because it seems like a welcoming place.”

The Conservative government in Britain, for example, was elected under a promise to reduce net migration, and passed legislation in July of 2010 that shrinks the issuance of visas by 5 per cent. The Netherlands has restricted access to temporary work permits for non-European Union citizens. Overall, Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, and Japan all had significant drops in immigration in 2009, and have been slow to recover.

Restrictive immigration policies tend to hurt these countries in the long run, says François Crépeau, professor of public international law at McGill University in Montreal and the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants. “You can see in countries that have restricted immigration that it has an effect on growth,” he says. “In the U.K,. the business community is telling [Prime Minister David] Cameron, ‘We need more people. Don’t block them.’”

Canada, on the other hand, lacks a strong anti-immigration sentiment. Thanks to recent changes in Canada’s immigration system, it is now easier to attract skilled talent to Canadian companies. The Canadian Experience Class program, for example, offers temporary foreign workers a path to citizenship, and is designed primarily to attract the young and highly skilled.

Another trend is an influx of skilled temporary workers for large projects, such as in the Alberta oil sands. While the program has come under fire recently for being used for unskilled labour, it can also be useful for attracting the skilled labour Canada needs.The highly skilled people “tend to get a pathway to citizenship,” Dr. Shields says.

Dr. Crépeau believes Canada should go further to ensure labour markets have access to the talent they need. “In Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, people move freely between these borders and find jobs within each other’s borders,” he says. “We should do that in North America.”

Armand de Mestral, professor emeritus in the faculty of law at McGill, says a free movement zone should be a prime consideration of the Canada-European Union free-trade deal that is in the works. “We are making considerable efforts to remove barriers to trade in services, but when it comes to human beings, suddenly there’s no willingness at all to get into this very seriously,” he says.

No policy can guarantee that a worker, once established, will not jump ship to greener pastures, domestic or otherwise. More choice for businesses also means more choice for employees, and the onus is on employers to provide an attractive long-term work experience.

Dr. de Mestral and Dr. Crépeau both agree that employers must prepare for a new breed of elite globalized worker, who can, and will, cross borders with relative ease.

For his part, Dr. Nandy remained in Canada for several years, then moved on to accept a position at Brandeis University’s International Business School near Boston. He says he misses the food in Toronto, but home to him is wherever opportunity knocks.

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