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Canada’s tech startup sector wants easier access to hire top foreign talent

March 28, 2016

By Sean Silcoff, Globe and Mail |

After winning a big concession in the budget on taxing stock options, Canada’s tech startup sector is braced for its next battle: urging Ottawa to fix immigration rules that limit its ability to hire top foreign talent.

The Express Entry system brought in by the last government in 2015 “is fundamentally too rigid” and leaves employers waiting up to six months to discover if they can bring skilled foreign talent to Canada, said Tobi Lutke, CEO of Ottawa-based software firm Shopify Inc. “That puts us at a huge disadvantage for recruiting internationally.”

Under policy changes enacted by the Conservatives, employers now must validate a job offer by getting government approval for a “Labour Market Impact Assessment” – showing it couldn’t find Canadians to do the job. While that approach targeted abusers of the temporary foreign worker program, it meant fast-growing tech firms searching for the best employees globally had to submit to the same drawn-out process, only to be told in many cases by Ottawa that they should just hire a Canadian.

“It was a misguided approach,” said Sarah Anson-Cartwright, director of skills and immigration policy for the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

Immigration Minister John McCallum wasn’t available to comment. But a department spokesman said the government plans to review the Express Entry program “to see how it can be improved for potential immigrants such as top-level foreign executives. The review will include, likely among other things, the LMIA requirement.”

Tech startup leaders say the rules not only add delays but that the process lacks transparency and consistency, imposes needless bureaucracy and lacks an appeals process. In many cases, would-be recruits choose other offers rather than waiting. Foreign students awaiting government approval for their job offers sometimes must leave Canada when their study visas expire.

Six out of 10 employers surveyed by the Canadian Employee Relocation Council (CERC) last year said the immigration changes under the Tories had hindered their strategy planning and recruiting. One out of six opted to create the jobs abroad instead.

Last week, Toronto-based Figure 1, a software company that allows doctors to share medical photos, passed on “an awesome candidate” based in Western Europe “because we’d have to go through this long drawn-out process,” said CEO Greg Levey. “He would have led a whole initiative here. But we went through this before.”

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