Kirk Simpson is the CEO and co-founder of Toronto-based fintech Wave, and a member of the Council of Canadian Innovators.
Canada’s technology companies have historically struggled to attract, hire and retain the talent they need to scale up. Proximity to the U.S. and its mature tech scene, and the increased presence of large, foreign technology companies who are expanding their footprints on Canadian turf, have made it difficult for homegrown tech firms to compete for domestic talent.
Even if we could turbocharge the feeder system overnight – boosting the number of engineering grads and keeping them in Canada, for example – that doesn’t meet the entire need. We need experience: people who have scaled international, industry-defining tech companies before, at a senior level. That’s a missing component in the Canadian technology ecosystem that you can’t fix by looking inward.
Enter the Global Skills Strategy, a plan by the federal government launched in 2017 to boost the high-skills talent pool in Canada. This strategy was billed as a pilot that, for two years, would enable high-growth firms to gain faster access to highly skilled foreign workers. Before the pilot, it took upwards of twelve months for Ottawa to issue visas to these workers. Believe me when I say that a best-in-class technology professional will not sit by and wait for a year to find out if they might come to work with you. This new pilot promised 14-day turnaround times for visas.
Since launching last year, the dedicated tech-talent stream of the program has received over 800 applications for nearly 900 positions. More than 300 unique employers have used the new process and more than 70 employers have returned for additional applications. The program worked for Wave, too: We successfully added three talented, experienced employees to our team, and are optimistic about leveraging the program in the future to support our growth.
I’ll pause here to point out the math: In the last 12 months, Wave created just shy of 100 brand-new jobs in technology, and we hired three people through this pilot program. Hiring specific, skilled workers doesn’t take jobs from Canadians. Rather, it helps Wave keep growing quickly, so we can create a disproportionate number of new jobs that employ even more Canadians.
Though the Global Skills Strategy pilot has been successful, it’s still just a pilot. We need a long-term solution so our companies can make long-term growth plans, especially as Canada’s skilled labour crunch reaches record levels. A recent ICTC report predicts that by 2020, there will be a shortage of nearly 220,000 tech workers in Canada. That is a startling number of well-paid jobs going unfilled because there is not enough supply for the growing demand.
Further measures by the federal government should also be pursued to increase the availability of tech talent, including working with innovators to develop a national talent-retention strategy, and greater promotion of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education in our publicly funded academic institutions.
To design the Global Skills Strategy, the federal government actively consulted Canadian tech CEOs on how to make a program that would actually address the talent shortage. The resulting program worked. For its next phase of this strategy, the government should continue to work hand-in-hand with innovators and make the pilot a permanent program for the foreseeable future.