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A wall showing games made at Ubisoft Studios in Montreal, January 17, 2013.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

A week after the federal government agreed to allow universities to be partly self-governing in how they comply with the temporary foreign worker program, the video-game industry is looking for similar flexibility when it recruits workers from abroad.

The industry argues that restrictions aimed at employers of low-skilled temporary workers are hurting businesses like theirs that hire highly skilled talent, a position they'll advocate Tuesday on Parliament Hill. So far, universities are the only group to have won any concessions.

"There has to be a level of trust … knowing that we invest a lot of money to bring outsiders into the country. We've done our due diligence and if we are going to put thousands of dollars behind a person just to move them here, it's a worthwhile hire and we should not be facing additional hurdles from the administrative side," said Martin Carrier, vice-president and studio head at Warner Bros. Games Montréal.

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Changes to rules in the TFW program over the past year were aimed at employers who overlook Canadians in favour of more compliant foreign labour. Entertainment software companies say that even though they work with universities and colleges to increase the number of game developers, their business still has unemployment rates under 3 per cent, and they must look abroad to find experienced workers with specialized skills.

"Of the new entry-level people we hire, we know that 97 per cent are Canadians or from Canadian universities. The issue starts at the intermediate or senior realm," said Jayson Hilchie, president and CEO of the Entertainment Software Association of Canada, which represents video-game developers and distributors.

Mr. Hilchie said there are approximately 70 academic programs in Canada that produce potential employees.

The Canadian branches of French multinational Ubisoft, for example, offer co-op programs, send new employees abroad to gain international experience and sponsor game-design competitions.

"We depend on more senior people to come here and train more junior people … If someone takes too much time to bring on board, we have to decline the work," said Alex Parizeau, managing director at Ubisoft Toronto. Ubisoft expanded to Toronto after growing to almost 3,000 employees in Montreal. On some projects, Ubisoft has had to turn to foreign labour for a third of employees, he said.

Nationally, more than 17,000 people work in the video-game industry, where wages are high and more than 40 per cent of employees have a university degree, according to the industry's figures.

"We should not be treated the same as some other industries that bring in low-skilled workers. We are at the cutting edge of what's being done. People that we bring in are highly skilled, they are some of the best in the world and we fight for them. The more hurdles we have, the more chance we have of losing them to some of the companies in Asia," Mr. Carrier said.

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A parliamentary report released last year found that recruiting abroad is taking more time and resources after the government closed accelerated pathways to entry and asked companies to demonstrate they had made extensive efforts to find Canadian workers.

Since June, employers have faced added rules. Companies offering jobs that pay at or above the median provincial wage have had to submit a plan explaining how they will transition the position to a Canadian. And firms transferring workers with specialized knowledge from abroad must meet more stringent requirements.

The industry is also concerned that the new Express Entry immigration system may make it harder to keep employees from offices abroad after their initial work permit expires. It's an anxiety shared by many other businesses, from finance to mining, according to lawyers advising the firms.

"When you spend seven years in a country, your life is here … We will tell them you have to pack your bags and go home," said Stéphane Duval, an immigration lawyer with McCarthy Tétrault in Montreal.

In 2013, only 38 per cent of foreign workers entering Canada came through the TFW program. Federal figures show the rest entered without a labour market opinion, which considers their impact on the local labour market. The Canadian Association of University Teachers has said it disagrees with the flexibility shown universities, and there are "scores of qualified Canadian academics" who could fill openings.

In the gaming industry, the changes to the immigrant selection and entry process are encouraging companies to give new graduates a chance to jump ahead in their careers, said Mary Sorrenti, a vice-president at Game Pill and a member of the board of directors at Interactive Ontario.

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New graduates, for example, may find themselves hired for mid-level positions, Ms. Sorrenti said.

"Even though the traditional experience may not be that strong, a lot of these students started programming at a very young age. … Near term we have to look at creative solutions," she said.

All gaming companies said they would prefer to hire Canadians, not just because it is expensive to go abroad, but because Canadian employees are likelier to stay.

"Recruiting and relocating of highly skilled workers is extremely expensive and procedures are long and arduous," said Deirdre Ayre, studio head of Other Ocean, a video-game developer based in St. John's, and a member of the board of directors of the Canadian Interactive Alliance.

Ms. Ayre says skills shortages have led to her company turning away business. "There is no time for complicated processes or people will simply go elsewhere," she said.

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