Canadian technology executives are making plans to capitalize on U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration orders, using the new president’s crackdown to help their efforts to recruit skilled workers from overseas.
“I think it’s really sad and horrible from a political landscape perspective, but very selfishly it’s an incredible opportunity” said Dennis Pilarinos, a former Microsoft executive whose 22-person software startup in Vancouver, Buddybuild, is in hiring mode. “It’s a chance to welcome incredibly talented engineers who might not have otherwise considered roles in Canada.”
Mr. Trump on Friday put a four-month hold on allowing refugees into the United States and temporarily barred travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries. The bans affect travelers with passports from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
The ban extends to green card holders who are authorized to live and work in the United States, said Gillian Christensen, a Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman. It was unclear how many green card holders would be affected, but exceptions can be made on a case-by-case basis.
Some U.S. tech leaders voiced concerns or criticisms about the move. Google parent Alphabet Inc. told staff travelling overseas who may be impacted by the president’s executive order to return to the U.S. Bloomberg News reported that Google chief executive Sundar Pichai slammed Trump’s move in a note to employees Friday, telling them that more than 100 staff are affected by the order.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said on Facebook the president’s actions were “hurting Netflix employees around the world, and are so un-American it pains us all.”
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick also took to Facebook, saying he would raise concerns “this ban will impact many innocent people” when he and other business leaders meet the president next week. Apple CEO Tim Cook said in an email to staff obtained by Recode that the company “would not exist without immigration” and that it didn’t support the policy.
Carol Leaman, CEO of Waterloo-based digital learning software firm Axonify Inc., said Mr. Trump is “going to create sheer and utter chaos” for the U.S., “but we’ve got an opportunity here to take advantage of it.”
Canada’s tech industry faces a shortage of programmers and other skilled IT professionals – which is expected to rise to more than 200,00 by 2020 - as the best talent from foreign countries tends to be more attracted to Silicon Valley than to Canadian tech hubs such as Waterloo, Ont. and Toronto.
But that may change as Mr. Trump implements a harsh new policy that is less welcoming to newcomers, particularly from countries with large Muslim populations. Several Canadian tech entrepreneurs say they’ve noticed more interest from prospective employees living in the U.S. since the election.
“Just last week we had an incredibly talented senior engineer [from a prominent U.S. west coast technology company] who is Muslim and is leaving” America for Vancouver because his home and local mosque were recently vandalized, Mr. Pilarinos said. “Here’s someone we probably wouldn’t have thought we had a chance [to recruit]. I’m very eager to hire him.”
“It’s really unfortunate what Trump’s doing,” said Mark Organ, founder and chief executive of Influitive, a Toronto-based marketing software firm with 150 employees. “For tech, this kind of uncertainty is not good. It’s a global market for talent and capital. But for Canada it’s a boon, [and] we’ve seen this benefit already.”
Mr. Organ said his company has just hired a new director of finance and operations from India who had considered Silicon Valley job offers but passed on them in favour of the job in Toronto. While India is not one of the countries targeted by Mr. Trump’s travel ban, “it doesn’t matter, because if you’re in another place that’s nearby it’s like, ‘Well, how long is it going to be till Trump goes after us too because of all this protectionism?’” Mr. Organ said. “Global talent abhors uncertainty, and Canada is just a beacon of stability.”
Jim Balsillie, the former co-CEO of BlackBerry Ltd. and co-founder of the Council of Canadian Innovators, a group that represents dozens of successful, fast-growing domestic tech firms, said the federal government can seize the moment by ensuring that it eases the path to Canada for workers with hard-to-find software development, engineering and other skills.
“Policies such as [Trump’s] put everybody in the business community on edge because all global firms have a multicultural work force. But it’s also an opportunity,” said Mr. Balsillie.
“If Canada can quickly implement the global skills visa for tech talent within an upcoming national innovation strategy, we can reinforce our country as the place to attract the best talent” for startups and growing technology firms, he said.
Last fall, Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced measures that will make it easier for Canadian technology firms and multinational corporations operating here to bring in skilled foreign workers for jobs they are struggling to fill.
For qualifying companies, Ottawa said it will establish a two-week “standard” for approving visas and work permits – down from several months – and create a 30-days-a-year work permit that allows companies to bring in workers for short stints in some circumstances.
Mr. Morneau’s economic advisory council has also recommended the government expand immigration levels and speed up the process of getting into the country.
“If the best talent from around the world chooses to move to Canada, we have the opportunity to be more competitive,” Shopify Inc., a prosperous Ottawa-based retail commerce software provider, said in a statement to the Globe. “In order to do so, we all need to ensure that our country and our government are providing incentives for them to want to move here. We need to address and ensure that everything from our own immigration system, our education system, and our overall support for Canadian tech companies is stronger than ever so that this talent will want to do their life's work here.”
In five to 10 years, Canada could look back on this moment “as an inflection point when the U.S. closed its borders and people swarmed into Canada” to build the technology scene, said Janet Bannister, general partner of Real Ventures, a Canadian firm that invests in early-stage tech companies. Ms. Bannister added she has been contacted by Chinese investors “who say we want to invest in Canadian tech companies and we’re no longer investing in the U.S.”
With files from Reuters and Bloomberg