Illan Kramer is director of international research partnerships at the University of Toronto.
Silicon Valley, Seattle, Boston, Hong Kong, Shanghai. This isn't just a laundry list of places that have historically outcompeted Toronto, and Canada generally, for highly skilled labour – it's also a list of places my friends, co-workers and colleagues have, until recently, been moving to. That's no coincidence. I have a doctorate from the most research-intensive university in the country, and at times, I have felt like the only one still here.
From 2008 to 2013, I did a PhD in electrical engineering at the University of Toronto. There I was, surrounded by some of the smartest people one could ever hope to meet: I worked alongside graduate students from Greece, Iran, Italy, Germany, Mexico, China and, of course, Canada; postdoctoral fellows from the United States, Turkey, Brazil, Thailand, Bangladesh and Britain, and research scientists from Kazakhstan, the Netherlands and Serbia. My lab was a scientific United Nations.
The majority of these researchers loved their time in Toronto and hoped to stay and work, but many of them found that the research and industry ecosystem simply could not support people of their immense talents. And so they trickled away – some back to their home countries, but most pursuing positions in line with their experience, expertise and salary expectations. Canadian PhD holders have been in such high demand that they would get recruited to high-value jobs with the biggest and most exciting companies. Most of those jobs weren't here at the time.
This country, and in particular its academic institutions, already does the heavy lifting of attracting these brilliant people here and encouraging them to set up their lives. Considering its sheer size, with more than 17,000 graduate students, and its consistent ranking among the top 30 global universities, U of T may be the single biggest IQ aggregator in North America, if not the world. When they leave, Canada becomes a stepping stone to the list of global cities I cited earlier, and not a destination in its own right.
To keep the massive pool of talent we already attract here, we need to continue to foster a robust ecosystem with both major multinationals and burgeoning startups. Getting this right is not a question of what kinds of companies we want to create or attract – we just need more companies offering more high-value jobs located here, period.
If you work in tech in Silicon Valley, finance in New York or the energy sector in Houston, you have a reasonable prospect of leaving your job on Friday, and starting another on Monday. When a critical mass of employers cluster in a concentrated geographic region, it gives highly trained employees the freedom to look for new work without having to uproot and relocate. The key to a thriving knowledge-based ecosystem is not just a cluster of promising startups, but instead an abundance of capacity for R&D talent. In other words, the types of companies (whether startups, multinationals or anything in between) that make up a region's economy is less important to the success of that region than the people who come to join the region's work force.
Right now, Canadian cities, including Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Halifax (among others), are putting together pitches to draw Amazon's second headquarters, and its anticipated 50,000 six-figure jobs, to their neighbourhoods. There is a legitimate fear that Amazon will vacuum up all of the local talent, making it impossible for startups to scale. But in the long run, Amazons beget Amazons: it's not accidental that when Apple, Intel and Hewlett-Packard started lighting up Silicon Valley, Google, Facebook and Uber eventually started there, too. Even Amazon itself may have suffocated from a lack of local talent had Microsoft and Boeing not been down the street.
Toronto is having an international moment. In fields from artificial intelligence to advanced manufacturing to regenerative medicine, companies are paying attention to the research coming out of labs at U of T. Increasingly, they are saying that not only do they need to recruit here, but they need to be here. In the last few months alone, Uber, Fujitsu and Bayer have made announcements about moving into the city as they see this stable critical mass of local talent grow. This influx of R&D jobs makes possible ever-more ambitious talent-growth opportunities. A decade ago, Toronto would have struggled to make a case as a home for tens of thousands of new technology jobs; finally, Toronto can credibly go after an HQ2.
Maybe it's too late to bring my former colleagues back to Toronto, now that they've established careers and families all around the planet. Our goal now should be to ensure the same doesn't happen to the next generation of world-class talent.