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the immigrant answer

Temporary foreign worker Brian O'Donnell, from Ireland, carries a sheet of cladding while working on the construction of a new police station in Edmonton on April 30, 2012. In Alberta's stretched labour market, some employers have had to turn to overseas labour.Jason Franson

This is part of The Immigrant Answer –The Globe's series on the future of immigration in Canada. Read the original story here.

Stefania Cruz is a catch: 24, ambitious, bright and fluent in English as well as Spanish. In a year, she will complete her degree in industrial engineering at the Monterrey Institute of Technology in Tampico, northeast of Mexico City – training that is desperately sought in Canada's oil sands.

For the past four months, she has worked as a research intern in Vancouver, beefing up her language skills and earning a gleaming reference from her employer. But will she be back?

Upon graduation, Ms. Cruz will decide between Mexico's two northern neighbours. "The United States feels like a land of opportunity," she concedes, a place with better job prospects and bigger salaries. But Canada feels more like home: "The people are very nice, open and willing to help you. They don't care where I come from."

They also need her.

The challenges presented by Canada's aging population, low birth rate and growing labour shortages make a strong case for a significant boost in immigration. But the country also should pay particular attention to those it would like to come.

As well as young people like Stefania Cruz, there is a high demand for skilled workers such as Bernard Cross, an Irish heavy-machinery mechanic with 27 years' experience who will arrive in Saskatchewan in two weeks to repair trucks – and take up a post his new boss in Lloydminster has been trying to fill for three years.

Also required are dynamic innovators and job creators such as Sander de Block, who is commercial director of Tocardo International, a Dutch developer of hydro-turbine technology, and currently considering whether to set up shop in Nova Scotia.

Last year, Canada brought in 156,000 economic immigrants and their dependents, along with 191,000 temporary workers, and many more would like to follow suit. But are they the cream of the 640 million global migrants seeking a new home every year?

As countries jockey to lure the most creative and skilled employees – the ones who will drive the knowledge economy and energize its aging society – Canada can't simply wait for them to appear. It must step up the effort to sell the Canadian brand around the world – to get those with the most talent to see it not just as a land of tolerance for diversity, but as a nucleus of economic opportunity.

"We are getting the best who apply, but are those who apply the best?" asks Howard Duncan of the Ottawa-based International Metropolis Project, which researches migration and diversity. "At some point, especially looking at Canada's competitiveness in the international migration market, we are going to have to look at immigration as national – as opposed to a federal, provincial, employer or university project – and put those frictions behind us because there is more at stake."

The Last Best West revisited a century later

History seems to be repeating itself. In the 1870s, much as now, the West was booming but short on bodies. So the federal government launched an advertising campaign called The Last Best West, targeting farmers and labourers in Britain, the United States and Europe with the offer of free land.

The recruiters ran ads in newspaper, launched touring exhibitions, distributed promotional posters, even covertly bribed steamship ticket agents to pitch Canada to travellers – all to sell a sprawling countryside where a clever newcomer could make a fortune.

The campaign was a success: By 1900, about 1.6 million immigrants had arrived, a number that doubled by 1910 – enough to populate newly formed Alberta and Saskatchewan, and to dampen any expansionist tendencies lurking to the south.

Even so, there were concerns about the "quality" of the newcomers – or, as prairie clergyman J.S. Woodsworth, future leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, put it: "Within the past decade, a nation has been born. ... But how shall we weld this heterogeneous mass into one people?"

Leap ahead 140 years, and Canada's goal is the same, although the groups being targeted are not, and the global landscape has changed dramatically. In the race for the brightest, the United States is way out in front – according to a recent Gallup survey, 23 per cent of all potential migrants want to chase the American dream. Canada ranks third, the preferred destination of 7 per cent, and has fierce rivals in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and, barring recent economic circumstances, most of Europe.

Roughly 13 per cent of the world's adult population would like to settle in another country, but Canada isn't necessarily the destination of choice, or even on the radar. And there is no co-ordinated national approach to solving that problem, as attempts to recruit the best and brightest amount to a patchwork of initiatives – job and education fairs, Web advertising and efforts by individual employers and communities – at times hindered by a misguided sense of rivalry between different parts of the country.

The real competition, as one venture capitalist points out, is the rest of the world. And while Canadian universities are steadily elevating their brands globally, to ambitious parents in New Delhi who can afford to send their children abroad to study, Oxford and Harvard remain storied, household names.

Immigration experts like to talk about Hollywood movies project images of an optimistic, vibrant United States. (Even now, Captain America stars in the biggest movie of the year.) Without its own multibillion-dollar publicity machine, Canada is seen by many as a colder, more cautious cousin, with cities that serve as U.S. stand-ins in the movies, rather than being great metropolises themselves.

In places such as India, entrepreneurs say, Canada is still known more for its service-industry jobs than for its energetic innovation. And, as noted by Roopa Desai Trilokekar, a specialist in international education at Toronto's York University, negative messages are hard to reverse. It's widely known that immigrants are doing less well in Canada of late, she says. The recent decision by Canada to wipe out its immigration backlog in one fell swoop – thereby dashing the hopes of people who had waited years in the queue – hasn't helped. Even newspaper stories about crime rates in Saskatchewan have deterred Irish tradespeople considering offers from employers there.

Still, Simon Anholt, a London-based adviser on country-engagement strategy, points out that Canada is almost universally admired. He says foreigners just have trouble articulating the basis for that admiration – which is a key weakness in our national brand: They like us; they just don't know why.

"There are a lot of people for whom Canada resonates positively," says Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies. "We need to expand their knowledge."

Hunt for new Canadians begins in the classroom

One area where Canada is bolstering its recruitment effort is in drawing international students such as Stefania Cruz – the 2011 federal budget set aside $10-million to develop a proper strategy. The interest in students comes, in large part, from the tuition money they bring with them, as well adding a global perspective to classrooms and valuable research skills to graduate programs.

Seeing them as potential immigrants is controversial, since it raises the indelicate matter of poaching from nations that need their best talent to come home. But students are key because for many, foreign education is the first step in an immigration process – in surveys, as many as 60 per cent of international students say they would like to stay in Canada. If they do, they leave school with social networks, strong language skills, Canadian credentials – the kind of people the country wants. Even if they return home, they have built ties to Canada that may develop into business opportunities and diplomatic links, and they raise Canada's profile.

The U.S. attracts 20 per cent of foreign students, followed by Britain with 12 per cent. Canada draws only about 4 per cent – slightly more than half that of Australia, a comparable market. At 7 per cent, the Australians have seen a 40-per-cent increase in the past decade, although recruitment efforts suffered significantly after racially motivated attacks on students from India, further demonstrating how quickly reputations can be damaged.

To tap this market more aggressively, in 2007, Immigration Canada took the bold step of changing the postgraduation opportunities for international students – allowing them to remain for three years, even if they don't immediately have a job offer in their field – a significant departure from the previous policy, which gave them six months, even as the U.S. and Britain have tightened their restrictions. Ontario has set a goal of increasing foreign enrolment by 50 per cent, introducing the Trillium Scholarship and spending $30-million over four years to give free rides to top PhD students from around the world.

But Canadian universities have joined the game relatively late. In the 1990s, when Prof. Desai Trilokekar was working for the British government to recruit students, she noticed that there were no Canada-specific education offices in India – and there still aren't. When students came in asking about Canada back then, she had nowhere to send them – often not even an education contact at the local consulate.

Meanwhile, countries such as Britain and Australia have been especially aggressive in setting up such offices, approaching recruitment as a national, rather than institutional, goal. This approach is complicated for Canada, as provinces oversee education, so it lacks, as with many recruiting initiatives, a healthy infrastructure to sell the notion of coming here for an education.

Although institutions such as the University of British Columbia are stepping up their efforts, Prof. Desai Trilokekar contends that Canada has failed to capitalize fully on alumni networks found in many countries or to recognize the significant benefit (at relatively low cost) of a locally hired education officer speaking on its behalf. (Some universities use private recruiters, but as well as fraud being a potential problem, students and parents are more willing to consider options when presented by an official government representative.) This is especially important because, while grad students will seek out the best programs in their field, undergrads are more likely to base their decision on how they see the country in question.

If attracting top students from around the world is challenging, it's even harder to identify and recruit the next Steve Jobs or Mike Lazaridis, who could be graduating from an engineering program in Bangalore with a big idea and looking somewhere to plant it. A new program of start-up visas that will help young foreign entrepreneurs with little capital has been well received by the business community. But venture capitalists such as Chris Arsenault, managing partner at iNovia Capital in Montreal, say Canada still needs to work at developing its critical mass of entrepreneurs as well as specific hubs, such as video in Montreal, e-commerce in Toronto and high tech in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont.

But the issue, he suggests, also includes raising the profile of existing companies, and selling the message that you don't need to be in Silicon Valley to be successful. Canada has many positives: its quality of life, stable economy, educated work force, proximity to the U.S. and European markets. "But when you sell California," he adds, "you are not selling the beach or the sun, it's a cultural thing" – an energy that Canada has yet to project.

To accomplish this, Mr. Arsenault says, successful companies and start-ups must connect with global peers both to exploit their experience and to spread the word that Canada is "fertile ground" for innovators.

But that also requires making a personal connection, says Suneet Singh Tuli, the Toronto-based chief executive officer of Datawind, a wireless developer that has devised a $57 tablet computer and signed a contract to distribute it to students in India.

Mr. Singh Tuli arrived in this country when he was 11 and says he regularly talks up Canadian opportunities when he travels. "Canada, in my opinion, is the natural choice," he says. "Unfortunately, there's still a perception that it's America's sleeping neighbour and all the action is in the United States. I tell them they are wrong – all the action is here. You are on the doorstep of wherever you want to be."

As an example of what Canada could do to project a different global image, Mr. Singh Tuli cites a recent program started in Britain to identify high-achieving entrepreneurs as "ambassadors," both to help mentor local (and incoming) young innovators and to raise the country's international profile.

There are two advantages to encouraging successful young Canadians to be more prominent at global gatherings, he points out. "It allows us to pitch Canada. And the validation it bring us is also important – that we are not Lone Rangers in the wilderness; we are credible people with the support and backing of the Canadian government."

Good-bye Australia. Canada, hello

Bernard Cross can't find work in his native Ireland, but he has a gold-plated résumé in Canada. For 27 years, he has worked as a factory-trained Volvo mechanic, fixing truck engines, training apprentices and supervising on a dealer's shop floor.

One Sunday morning in March, he stood in line with more than 6,000 compatriots at a foreign job fair. After waiting three hours, he sat down with Leonard Conlon, the plain-spoken owner of Midwest Truck Centre, who had come from Lloydminster with a delegation organized by the province and led by Premier Brad Wall.

Mr. Conlon had been looking for someone like Bernard Cross for three years – plus his credentials could be easily transferred to Canada, and language, obviously, wasn't a barrier. One handshake and four hours of filling out immigration application forms later, and the deal was struck: Mr. Cross will land in Saskatchewan on May 24, followed by his wife and three children.

It sounds deceptively simple – a match of mutual opportunity. But the Saskatchewan government, facing, like all western provinces, a shortage of skilled employees to keep the economy booming, had orchestrated the encounter, taking up half the space in a convention room at the Royal Dublin Society, hoping to out-pitch such rivals as New Zealand and Australia, also in attendance.

Mr. Wall walked the lineup himself, fielding questions about the price of milk and how long it would take to get a driver's licence. In the best-land-to-live competition, his province lost to Down Under on winter and how well the Irish could find it on a map, but won on affordable housing and a shorter flight home for family visits.

Saskatchewan had strategically organized a one-stop event: Once an employer offered a job, a cheerful immigration staffer next door assisted with the application forms. In an adjacent room, an Irish couple who made the move last year also fielded questions. It was a success by the only standard that counts: The 27 employers who made trip had hoped to fill 272 vacancies, but at last count were up to 282 job offers, and counting.

Employment fairs aren't new, but they are a recruitment tactic of choice for western provinces and employers, especially now that economically troubled Europe seems to be such a rich vein for workers. A significant shift has been to clear the ground work for approving foreign credentials – the British Columbia Construction Association, which also visited Ireland in March, met in advance with Irish professional associations. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that employers, even smaller companies, now come along, ready to hire on the spot if they find what they need.

A strong recruitment campaign must recognize what entices people to uproot their lives and settle in another country: good jobs or schooling, proximity to family back home, as well as social support, an easy route to citizenship, a strong economy and stable government. Highly skilled travellers aren't coming for their kids any more: "They are coming for themselves," says Dr. Duncan, the Ottawa researcher. "If they don't make it in three to six months, they're gone. They don't have the patience of immigrants who came in the fifties, sixties and seventies."

To that end, current Canadian approaches to recruitment, especially for skilled workers also being wooed by countries such as Australia, have focused on making firm job offers in advance of arrival – and reducing the timeline for starting that new job.

An effective plan also includes making newcomers want to stay. Sometimes, it doesn't work out: Bryan MacFadden, the Saskatoon division manager for Allnorth Consultants, hired two engineers and an engineering technologist after making a hard sell for Saskatchewan. But he lost a top candidate to an Australian company that offered a higher salary.

At the same time, the kind of immigrant who does choose Canada says a lot about where its sales pitch succeeds and where it falls down: A 2010 Gallup survey found that, compared with the United States, Canada is more likely to be a first choice among older, highly educated immigrants, especially those from Asia and Europe. As well, transnational networks are clearly important: A 2011 analysis of Gallup data from 146 countries found that adults who had friends or family in another country were three times as likely to express a desire to move there.

Bernard Cross illustrates this finding. On the weekend of the job fair, he had just arrived home from Australia with a firm offer in hand and expecting to move there imminently. Why did he change his mind? In large part because his wife has family in Canada. After all, newcomers are also natural ambassadors to potential workers at home: "Who is getting the message out is a reflection of who is here," Dr. Jedwab explains.

The city that refused to just hope for the best

The personal touch is also behind a new immigration initiative by the Manitoba municipality of Winkler-Stanley, which began advertising for newcomers on the Web. Marketing doesn't have to be fancy, the community of 12,000 found – a simple ad on the Chamber of Commerce site quickly went viral through online forums. With the help of an immigration consultant, Winkler was looking for new residents who matched a certain skill set, or were interested in starting a business. Within months, 130 résumés had landed, and last summer, city representatives travelled to Berlin to interview the best candidates, co-ordinating with local employers to offer jobs. They spoke to pharmaceutical researchers, tradespeople, midwives, a doctor who had travelled from Israel. They also interviewed potential first-time entrepreneurs.

It wasn't just a job interview, says Darlis Collinge, Winkler's economic development officer; the candidates discussed their families and their hobbies, and asked questions about musical opportunities in Winkler and soccer teams for their kids.

"We really wanted to get to know who these people were," Ms. Collinge says, "because we didn't want to just bring people over to fill jobs. We wanted people who will make a home here."

Back in Winkler, a committee approved a final list of applicants, the first of whom will arrive this summer. In the fall, Winkler plans another recruiting trip, this time to Moscow and including a contingent of employers.

Stefania's choice: job offer is 'most important'

To some extent, this is a step-by-step process; each successful recruitment strategy, from word of mouth, to networking, to face-to-face hires creates an opportunity for another.

For Stefania Cruz, her final decision, she says, will also come down to logistics: which country (and employer) signals that it wants her the most. Ultimately, she is pragmatic: "I want to work in the industry," particularly in quality control and production. "The job offer is most important."

For Sander de Block, the personal approach – and the genuine interest shown by Nova Scotia representatives – has won him over: "In most places, it stops with being wined and dined, getting a nice brochure, or a tax rebate," he says. In Nova Scotia, he says, the conversation was also about fostering his company's innovation.

As for Mr. Cross, he isn't even in Canada and already he is serving as ambassador for his adopted land. Last weekend, in his country home about 30 kilometres west of Dublin, he played host to a Canadian-style barbecue for a handful of other families also en route to Saskatchewan.

"I feel like I won the lotto," he says of the job awaiting him.

Back in Lloydminster, his new employer echoes the sentiment: The Irish trip, Leonard Conlon says, "was the best thing that happened to me."

And looking to the future, Canada needs to make connections like this happen much more often.

'Innovation Idol'

Last year, venture-capital fund Innovacorp conducted the Nova Scotia Cleantech Open, a global competition that offered, among other incentives, $100,000 for the best non-polluting tech proposal by a company either in the province or willing to set up shop there.

As well as advertising online, Innovacorp actively sought out candidates around the world – which was no mean feat, according to investment manager Thomas Rankin. "It's hard enough to find an entrepreneur in your backyard."

The results: 65 submissions from China, the Caribbean and Europe, as well as several fledgling local companies, one of which was the eventual winner. Still, Innovacorp has stayed in contact with other finalists – and raised the profile of Nova Scotia as a hub for clean-tech development.

The personal touch

This summer, Edmonton's economic development agency will conduct a marketing campaign in the U.S. to attract unemployed, skilled workers, taking along a contingent of oil sands employers looking for thousands of engineers, mechanics and welders.

To sell the idea of moving to Canada, the recruiters will rely on a combination of the familiar "quality of life" pitch and a solid message about just how big Alberta natural-resource projects are.

"No one really understands the order of magnitude in the oil sands," says Mike Wo, executive director of the Edmonton Economic Development Corp. "We want them to understand it's a massive undertaking and there are literally, dozens and dozens of employers who would be thrilled to have them."

The agency is going so far as to fly in potential hires to show them what Edmonton is like. Pooling their resources, employers will cover the cost of group flights so that candidates can check out the city, from its housing and university to the quality of its golf courses.

The brain gain

Next month, a federal advisory panel will publish a report proposing how Canada can improve its recruiting of international students – an initiative supported by $10-million from Ottawa.

Meanwhile, universities and provinces go it alone – attending education fairs abroad, targeting certain regions (India, in particular), expanding their social-media presence and building research ties with foreign universities.

Recruiting consultant Gardiner Wilson says that attracting foreign students "serves any number of positive objectives." But other countries, such as Singapore and Malaysia, have become rivals and, he says, Canada "got a slow start. ... It's a bit tricky when there is no department to take on the role at a national level."

To fill the void, several provinces have special sections within their education ministries, such as the Manitoba International Education Council.

Sending students abroad is also a major part of Canada's strategy as countries are more open to two-way exchanges. Brazil recently announced a $1.65-billion initiative to send 100,000 science students to foreign schools, including 12,000 to Canada. It will pay their way with tax dollars and corporate contributions – provided that they agree to return home.

— With files from Tavia Grant and James Bradshaw

To find out what immigration looks like in your community, see an interactive look at solutions to Canada's immigration problem and share your own story click here.

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