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Growth Why Canada should roll out the red carpet for skilled foreign workers

What comes to mind when you hear the term temporary foreign worker? You probably think of low-paid labourers brought here by evil profit-mongering corporations to undercut our salaries and displace Canadians from their jobs. At least that's the direction your thoughts might turn if you have followed the recent political debates and media reports.

When I hear "temporary foreign worker," I think of something else. I picture the future – one in which the most talented people on the planet flock here to work on world-leading innovation, and in the process, give Canada a competitive edge.

As chief executive officer of a fast-growing technology company launched in 2012, I have caught glimpses of this future on occasions when our search for top experts to join our team has taken us beyond Canada's borders. In these cases, we've used the Temporary Foreign Worker program to bring in the key people we've needed to expand our business here.

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Unfortunately, these glimpses of the future were seen through a thick haze of cumbersome processes, outdated requirements, and unexplained delays.

None of this bodes well for Canada if we are serious about competing in the global knowledge economy.

Winning that competition will depend on how well we can tap into the one natural resource Canada often overlooks: extremely talented people at the top of their fields. And those people live all over the world.

This means we need an immigration system that is nimble, accessible, and responsive enough to keep up with fast-growing, knowledge-driven companies as they create new markets, not just for new products, but for new types of jobs.

Our company developed the Myo Armband, a device that enables users to control computing devices wirelessly, through simple hand gestures.

In less than three years, our company has grown from a back-of-the-napkin idea by three undergraduate students, into a company with over 70 employees, fuelled by more than $10-million in Myo sales and $20-million in venture capital from top North American investors.

To obtain the specialized skills to bring this all-new technology to market, we have recruited highly educated team members – including a top electrical engineer and candidates with PhDs in human-computer interaction and machine learning – from New Zealand, France and Italy, respectively, among other countries.

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In all cases, finding these candidates was the easy part, compared with the process we had to follow under the temporary foreign worker program.

For starters, the process is a black box into which you file your application to bring in a worker, and then wait – in our case, five months was typical – for a notice of approval or rejection. No one from Citizenship and Immigration Canada calls you to confirm that your documents are in order; all you can do is hope for the best and be ready to start all over again if the application isn't accepted.

A key condition is meeting the government's wage requirements. The goal of this makes sense: to prevent employers from undercutting Canadian salaries by importing cheap labour.

However, this rule fails to recognize non-salary compensation such as stock options, which tech startups like ours commonly pay. This makes it appear that we're underpaying foreign workers, when in fact, their total compensation is identical to that of any Canadian in the same role.

The Temporary Foreign Worker program does not sufficiently differentiate between highly skilled and unskilled workers. As a result, it doesn't recognize the benefits to Canada from attracting well-paid, world-leading experts to our companies. These experts serve as magnets to other talented people, spurring even more prosperity for our country.

Instead of rolling out the red carpet to welcome these human job-creation engines, we've been raising a red flag against the perceived threat of Canadian job loss at the hands of foreigners.

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While this negative positioning may serve political ends, it only serves to discourage entrepreneurs who, like me, consciously chose Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., over Silicon Valley to build a company. Making it more difficult to do so hardly seems in anyone's best interest.

A new, streamlined category for highly skilled workers – one that could place qualified foreign applicants into Canadian companies within, say, three to four weeks – would help equip our most promising tech firms not only to compete, but to win, in the global race for talent.

That's the kind of future I encourage all candidates running in the Oct. 19 federal election to picture when they hear the term "temporary foreign worker."

Stephen Lake is co-founder and chief executive officer of Thalmic Labs, a wearable computing company based in Kitchener, Ont.

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