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People walk along London's financial district on March 19, 2021. The U.K. is proposing a high-potential tech talent visa to attract individuals with in-demand skills to come to the country – no job offer needed.Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Benjamin Bergen is president and Abu Kamat is policy adviser at the Council of Canadian Innovators.

Many Canadians in the country’s technology ecosystem were paying attention last July when the United Kingdom published its national innovation strategy, and with good reason – it included two policy ideas that could help address the acute labour market squeeze in the sector.

First, the U.K. was going to introduce a “scale-up visa,” allowing highly-skilled individuals to get on the immigration fast track if they had a job offer from a high-growth tech company. Five years ago at the Council of Canadian Innovators (CCI), we worked with the federal government to develop the global talent stream, a very similar program that has become a lifeline for Canadian companies.

It feels good to see other countries copying our policy successes.

It’s time for a more ambitious, lasting solution to Canada’s tech-talent shortage

From ‘boomer’ companies to encroaching giants, Canada’s tech sector has a labour problem

But the U.K. is also proposing something else: A high-potential tech talent visa, where they’ll make it as simple as possible for individuals with in-demand skills to get a visa – no job offer needed. If your labour market is desperate for software developers or data scientists, just let ‘em in!

Why didn’t we think of that?

At CCI, we hear it from our members every day: Canadian scale-up companies are desperate to find workers.

Over the past six months, CCI has been assembling a strategy to address the tech-talent crisis as quickly as possible. We engaged with Canada’s tech entrepreneurs, human resource leaders, academics, and tech workers and, as we looked around for solutions, what we found was fascinating.

The ethos that drives innovators is simple: If you see a problem, try to find a solution. And if one doesn’t exist, you need to get creative. The high-potential immigration visa is a good idea, and innovators have come up with many more creative ways to navigate the talent crisis.

In Quebec, cloud services provider FX Innovation partnered with the University of Ottawa to develop CloudCampus, a re-skilling program specifically focused on developing cloud-computing specialists.

Nicole and Cory Janssen, co-CEOs of AltaML, at their office in downtown Edmonton on March 14. The artificial intelligence company has created a training program with support from Calgary Economic Development.Kelsey McMillan/The Globe and Mail

Not every company has the capacity and motivation to develop their own education program in partnership with a university. In Alberta, artificial intelligence company AltaML has created a training program with support from Calgary Economic Development. When a business recognizes a labour market need and wants to develop a solution, government’s economic development agencies should be there with support and funding.

Our postsecondary institutions have a role to play, too, given their history of producing world-class talent. In looking for solutions, we heard from CEOs that the standard four-month, paid co-op placements aren’t great for companies because it typically takes three months just to train a student.

The University of Western Ontario’s paid year-long engineering co-op program helps foster closer ties between co-op students and employers, leading to more graduating students ultimately seeking employment at the firm. That approach nurtures a stronger talent pipeline from Canadian universities to Canadian companies.

There are many more good ideas generated by Canadian innovators to address the talent shortage. There are also questions that remain unanswered: Why don’t we have a digital-nomad strategy in Canada – especially now that remote work will be the norm for a growing class of highly-paid professionals?

At CCI, we’ve just published 13 key recommendations in a Skills and Talent Strategy. These are ideas created by companies and executives on the front lines of the global war for talent. Taken together, they would meaningfully increase the availability of skilled tech talent in Canada.

COVID-19 has massively disrupted the labour market, and innovators are already adapting to new realities. Innovation isn’t always about inventing a brand-new idea; it’s often just recognizing what already works, adapting it and improving it along the way. It’s also helping our policy-makers with front-line feedback so they can design programs that have meaningful impact on our economy.

We don’t need a hundred-page academic study or a parliamentary committee convening hearings on Canada’s acute talent shortage and then waiting a year to publish a report. The ideas are already available for the taking if we only listen to the leaders of Canada’s innovative, high-growth companies. They are telling us that on talent issues we need action, urgently.

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