The B.C. government says Ottawa is stifling the province's growing technology sector by rejecting demands for a substantial expansion of a program that allows B.C. to nominate new immigrants according to its labour-market needs.
British Columbia will be allowed to select 6,000 immigrants in 2017 – the same number it had in 2016 – under the provincial nominee program.
Last year, that program fast-tracked skilled workers with job offers in B.C. including engineers, information technology workers, heavy equipment operators, social workers and university professors.
B.C. Jobs Minister Shirley Bond said in an interview she is disappointed with the decision from federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen on this year's limit. "We had asked for 9,000. We laid out what we thought was a very strong economic argument," she said.
The B.C. government recently rewrote its jobs plan to adjust to a changing economy. Five years ago, the province was banking on growth in sectors such pipeline construction, mining and liquefied natural gas. Today, the fastest-growing sectors are in technology and manufacturing. To grow, B.C. argues, it needs economic immigration to fill the gaps in the labour market.
"We have the leading economy in Canada today and when we look some of the emerging sectors in our industries, we want to access very specific global talent," Ms. Bond said. "We're very concerned that by not adding a substantive number, they are limiting opportunity to grow the economy in British Columbia, which ultimately is helping drive the economy in Canada."
After U.S. President Donald Trump issued his executive order blocking entry to citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, the tech industry in the United States was among the most vocally opposed. Leaders in Canada's tech community quickly called on the federal government to seize the moment and make it easier for Canada to accept workers with software development, engineering and other skills.
B.C.'s tech sector employs more than its oil and gas, forestry and mining-related industries combined, but local tech firms and Premier Christy Clark have been lobbying Ottawa to streamline the immigration process so B.C. firms can more readily recruit top foreign talent.
A two-hour flight from California and within the same time zone, B.C.'s South Coast is seen as an attractive international destination for many U.S. tech companies looking to find a secure satellite location for foreign employees.
B.C.'s technology sector now employs more than 100,000 workers, whose wages are 75 per cent higher than the B.C. average.
Bill Tam, president and chief executive officer of the BC Tech Association, said his sector has shown strong growth over the past five years, but a shortage of skills has limited that expansion. "It does hold back growth in a couple of ways," he said in an interview. Microsoft Canada has established a "centre of excellence" in Vancouver, but knowledge-based companies can easily move to other jurisdictions if they cannot access the necessary talent, he said. As well, the fastest way to build up new teams is to be able to recruit established leadership through immigration, and the provincial nominee program is one of the fastest ways to do that, he said. "It comes down to, if we can bring the talent here, we can build the base of employees around them."
Nationally, the tech sector expanded by 1.1 per cent last year, but in British Columbia, that sector grew by 2.9 per cent. Ms. Bond said companies including Microsoft Canada and the social-media marketing company Hootsuite could be expanding faster but they are limited in part because they can't recruit the employees they want.
"It's about losing a window of opportunity. As the industry is growing we need to be able to bring in that top-notch talent," she said.
Ms. Bond said encouraging growth by bringing in the right skills sets will help create more jobs in British Columbia. "It is about job creation and it's about momentum, continuing to grow."
The federal government sets immigration levels and determines the total number for each province as well as the different immigration categories – economic, family or humanitarian.
Under the program, the provinces are allowed to nominate a portion of those immigrants based on their own criteria.
In British Columbia, those criteria have changed, from a first-come, first-served queue to a selection process driven by labour-market needs.
In 2015, British Columbia temporarily suspended its nominee program after changes to federal immigration rules led to a deluge of applications. The province then introduced new rules in 2016, and although it first processed the thousands of applicants under the old system, British Columbia now selects its nominees based on a points system that rates applicants' education, experience, language ability, their job offer in British Columbia and whether that occupation fills a high-priority gap in the labour market.
Less than 2 per cent of British Columbia's PNP immigrants are entrepreneurs, and the rest are people who have applied on the strength of a job offer in the province.
The campaign to raise British Columbia's share of the PNP numbers is an annual event.
Early in 2016, B.C. Premier Christy Clark travelled to Ottawa with industry leaders to make the case for an increase to the program – again, the province sought 9,000 nominees.
Instead, Ottawa gave the province 5,800 PNP spots, but late in the year offered the province another 200 spots by taking unused allocations from other provinces, bringing the total to 6,000.
With a report from Mike Hager