Skip to main content

Stephen Cryne is president and CEO of the Canadian Employee Relocation Council in Toronto.

There is strong consensus today that the key to future economic prosperity is through knowledge-based economies. Those economies thrive on new ideas and innovation, driven by highly skilled workers. For example, more than half of the software developers in Silicon Valley are foreign nationals, and 40 per cent of the Fortune 500 firms were founded by immigrants or their children.

Canada has a shortage of skills, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These skills are in short supply the world over, and Canada lags other countries in graduating students in these disciplines. A recent survey published by Manpower found that one in three Canadian employers are having difficulty filling these types of positions, and the most in-demand occupations are skilled trades and engineers.

Over the next decade, Canada will have a shortage of about two million skilled workers, in a work force of about 18 million people today. In British Columbia alone, a million-plus job openings are expected by 2019 and more than three-quarters of those will require postsecondary education.

Immigration is but one of several policy options available to the government to cushion the impact of a growing skills shortage and an aging population. For that reason, Immigration Minister John McCallum is on the right track in announcing increased immigration targets of 300,000 for 2017, one of the most ambitious targets in more than a century.

Within that target, the number of economic immigrants has been increased to 172,000, (about 7 per cent more than the 2016 numbers) but just over half of those will be principal applicants. The balance are dependents, who may or may not enter the labour force at some point. Simply put, more economic immigrants are needed if we are to put a dent in Canada's growing skills gap.

Canada also needs to think beyond traditional immigration models to fill its talent gaps. Globalization is leading to more integrated trade in services, which relies heavily on the ability to deploy talent. Many companies insist on global experience for their rising stars, and among highly skilled millennials, 74 per cent embrace mobility and expect to have an international posting.

Canada must adapt to this reality and implement more flexible rules to facilitate the movement of highly skilled talent into our country, even if they're not always interested in permanent residency.

Earlier this year, we conducted an employer survey on the impact of changes to the temporary foreign worker program introduced by the former Conservative government. Fifty-nine per cent reported the changes have had a negative impact on their ability to recruit skilled workers, and 16 per cent had moved work outside of Canada.

For those reasons, the recent announcements by Finance Minister Bill Morneau – establishing faster work-permit processing times for global talent and the short-duration work permit exemption as part of the government's Global Skills Strategy – are very positive steps.

As announced, these programs will be available to firms that can demonstrate such things as labour-market benefits, increasing investments, knowledge transfer and Canadian job creation; and to global companies that are making large investments in Canada, relocating to Canada, establishing new production or expanding production and creating Canadian jobs.

In the absence of details about what employers will be required to demonstrate, when it comes to job creation, investment and knowledge transfer, one fear is that complexity will lead to yet another layer of red tape (similar to the Labour Market Impact Assessment process) that employers must navigate, making the programs nearly impossible to access.

Today, talent is global. Companies need the flexibility to deploy it quickly and efficiently in order to increase productivity and drive innovation.

At a time when many regions in the world are turning away from global trade, and opposition to migration and foreign workers is on the rise, Canada is in a great position to improve its immigration programs and attract some of the much-needed top global talent to our shores.

Interact with The Globe