Sarah Anson-Cartwright is director of skills and immigration policy at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, and author of the report Immigration For A Competitive Canada: Why Highly Skilled International Talent Is At Risk.
If Canada is serious about innovation and business growth, then it needs to get economic immigration on the same track. Right now, our immigration system puts roadblocks in employers' way. The very people who can best identify and recruit the talent we need are the ones the system undermines.
Tech companies Shopify and Figure 1 recently told The Globe and Mail about their problems trying to bring in talent quickly or at all. Their experiences mirror what the Canadian Chamber of Commerce hears from many employers.
As Canada seeks to become a "global innovation leader," to use Finance Minister Bill Morneau's words, our economic immigration policy should be fit for purpose. An innovation strategy will not succeed unless it's backstopped by the best talent we can develop here at home and recruit from abroad.
Immigrants can help boost Canada's innovation performance. In its latest State of the Nation report, the Science, Technology and Innovation Council noted that immigrants are overrepresented as business owners, founders of high-tech startups and patent holders.
"We must aggressively court skilled immigrants who, now more than ever, are being sought after by our competitor countries," the Liberal Party of Canada wrote in reply to the Canadian Chamber during the election campaign last fall. The question is whether the "courting" should be done by employers, or mostly by government bureaucrats and a system that isn't in sync with business needs.
Fifteen months ago, Canada reformed its economic immigration system. The new plan, called Express Entry, intended to allow employers to target the skills they asked for. But today, most of our members say the system is thwarting their efforts to attract top-flight talent. The actual design of the system has had negative effects across high-value sectors, from high tech to financial services to the video-game sector.
Two competing policy principles are at play: On one hand, the government wants employers to have access to a pool of international talent. On the other hand, it wants Canadians to get the jobs first. The two processes – the Express Entry system and the labour market test – serve two different functions. Neither facilitates the attraction of the "best and the brightest."
A key issue is that the government denies labour market applications if it believes there are Canadians available in an occupation – even if the employer cannot find them. When a labour market application is approved, the employer and candidate still have to wait as long as six months for processing.
With a few critical tweaks, Express Entry could still be a game-changer. Australia's success with its new system should inspire us. This is Canada's chance to be demand-driven and selective in our recruitment of economic immigrants.
What are the fixes to this stymied opportunity? Are there lessons from other countries that Canada could emulate? Do we have a chance at truly attracting "the best and the brightest" for an innovation economy?
A recent report I wrote for the Canadian Chamber of Commerce has several recommendations. The first is to replace the labour market test with an alternative approach that respects employers' needs while validating job offers.
This is not radical. Ontario's Immigrant Nominee Program offers us a model, and until 2013, the federal government had an alternative process to approve employers' offers of employment.
To compete for in-demand tech talent, Canada could emulate Britain, where the new Tech Nation Visa Scheme offers a dedicated and expedited track for the digital technology sector. The scheme supports the scaling up of firms, talent with "exceptional promise" and recruiting high-calibre and high-performing teams.
The quality of immigrant talent has become an economic imperative. Express Entry is a competitive system. With a few policy fixes and processing changes, it could make the difference in inviting the right talent for a more innovative and productive economy in Canada.