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Recent changes to federal immigration process aim to fill high-tech labour gap

Shopify’s Sandeep Anand at the Waterloo office, a former brewery. "Serving the unique needs of our merchants around the world requires a great team with diverse experience and backgrounds."IAN STEWART/SUPPLIED

It wasn’t too long ago that Canadian companies seeking talent from overseas had to wait months for their new hires to arrive. In the high-demand, fast-paced technology industry, such delays are equivalent to years, in terms of lost productivity, says Sandeep Anand, Senior Lead on the Global Mobility team at Shopify.

By the time employers identified potential hires, extended job offers and navigated the lengthy visa and immigration process, they would often lose the talent to other companies, she says.

“This translated into difficulties with business planning, getting our targets met and simply growing our operations as a fast-scaling global company, headquartered in Canada,” says Anand. “We had to have multiple calls with immigration officers to review requirements, answer questions and post job descriptions, which slowed down our ability to hire great talent. This process didn’t align to our values of an inclusive hiring approach.”

Today these cumbersome – and often adversarial – processes are a thing of the past, thanks to a Global Talent Stream program launched by Employment and Social Development Canada in 2017. While it began as a pilot initiative, the program has since been permanently adopted into Canada’s immigration framework.

Through streamlining and simplifying its requirements, the program has allowed companies, like Shopify and others, to not only significantly shorten the hiring process from months to weeks, but to focus on searching for the best talent worldwide.

With more than 4,000 employees around the world, Shopify is now better equipped to compete at a global level and to continue expanding operations across Canada, with over 3,000 employees in the country.

“Serving the unique needs of our merchants around the world requires a great team with diverse experience and backgrounds,” says Anand. “The Global Talent Stream program has made it possible to hire top talent beyond our borders to fuel our global growth. Canada is an amazing country to build a business and a career, and this program has already helped employees to relocate as we shape the future of commerce.”

In the next decade, Canada’s nine-million-plus baby boomers – the country’s most prominent worker cohort – will all have reached retirement age. This reality, in combination with a low fertility rate, is placing increasing economic and fiscal pressure on the country, says Pedro Antunes, Chief Economist with the Conference Board of Canada.

“We have never seen labour markets this tight, with gaping vacancies across all industries,” says Antunes, who points out the urgency of finding tangible solutions – such as immigration – to replenish those who are exiting the workforce.

“In the early 2000s, we were growing employment at about 1.8 per cent a year on average. Demographics were more favourable then – we had the labour supply, a lot of people in the ranks of the unemployed that we could draw into the workforce.”

That has since changed.

“The number of people aged 17-24, who would be leaving school to enter the workforce, has also declined. Currently we have a net negative in terms of generating a labour force in Canada,” says Antunes.

To compensate for the lost potential economic growth, immigrant recruitment through employers such as Shopify is essential, says Naumaan Hameed, an immigration lawyer, Partner and Canadian Practice Leader at KPMG Law LLP.

“While Canadian schools are doing a great job producing much-needed tech graduates, they’ve not been able to keep up with the dramatic increase in demand for employees with specialized skills,” says Hameed, who played an integral role working with Shopify on its long-term immigration strategy.

“The Canadian approach views immigration as a talent enabler for companies – a net economic benefit for Canadians,” he adds. “In contrast, many Western countries seem to believe a conservative view of immigration will be better for domestic labourers.

“The growing protectionist sentiment has many countries limiting the flow of foreign workers in order to protect the local labour market. However, having predictability and access to in-demand foreign skills is exactly what will allow employers to grow the Canadian business economy and create new jobs.”

Back in 2016, as the federal government was reassessing its immigration policy, it reached out to companies in high tech and innovation to better understand the challenges in competing for global talent. KPMG facilitated the dialogue between key stakeholders to provide feedback and solutions, and to ensure challenges to immigration policy were effectively addressed.

“Many companies in the space made the point that if they were going to grow in Canada and compete, they needed a more responsive program,” says Hameed.

As a result of what he calls “an incredibly progressive initiative,” Canada has come out ahead as a model for other immigration programs around the world, he says.

For some Canadian businesses, it’s a model that is already paying dividends.

“It’s been amazing to have this breadth of international experience come into the company,” says Anand. “As immigration policies are getting tighter worldwide, Shopify can offer talent and their families a new home. It’s a real competitive edge for us.”

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.