Tech firms grapple with foreign worker recruitment

June 7, 2016

Business in Vancouver | Vancouver’s population might be relatively small, but its tech sector is still burgeoning.

The only problem, says immigration lawyer Bruce Harwood, is that tech companies are being forced to look outside Canada’s borders to recruit talent, especially for senior positions.

And when it comes to how easy tech startups think it will be to bring in a highly skilled foreign worker, “many have unrealistic expectations,” the Boughton Law shareholder told Business in Vancouver. Harwood specializes in advising clients on immigration in the engineering and technology sectors. His clientele has grown dramatically over the last few years, most notably since 2014, when the previous federal government introduced new restrictions on temporary foreign workers (TFWs).

“The fact that the government was embarrassed by the number of low-skilled [foreign] workers working in, for example, a food outlet doesn’t really address [the issue],” he said. “You’ve got demand for highly skilled workers in various industries … and you can’t find those people to fill those jobs.” Meanwhile, Vancouver tech companies like BuildDirect and Hootsuite are bypassing headaches caused by immigration rules when recruiting senior-level talent from tech hubs like Seattle and the Silicon Valley.

In 2014, Hootsuite hired Seattle-based Canadian Ajai Sehgal as its new chief technology officer. No additional paperwork or waiting period was required for the citizen who had previously worked at Expedia (Nasdaq:EXPE) and Groupon (Nasdaq:GRPN).

BuildDirect CEO Jeff Booth, meanwhile, told BIV last year his company recruited a Canadian from Amazon (Nasdaq:AMZN) to fill a senior-level position.

“A lot of the top Canadians left because there weren’t the same opportunities in Canada, and now that’s changing,” Booth said.

While changes to the TFW program have made it tougher to bring in highly skilled workers from overseas, Harwood said not enough companies are looking at labour market exemptions in free trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

For example, a “computer systems analyst” – a catch-all term under the NAFTA professional category — would allow many tech workers to skip the lengthy labour market impact assessment (LMIA) process. An American with the necessary credentials and a written offer of employment from a Canadian employer could instead apply at a port of entry to immediately enter into the domestic workforce without an LMIA document.

But visa restrictions imposed by Ottawa would not grant that same ability to a credentialed Mexican worker, even though Mexico is also part of NAFTA.

It’s complex, Harwood admitted. And because most tech companies are pursuing foreign workers through the labour market impact assessment (LMIA) process rather than through free trade agreement exemptions, it’s even more difficult to get a skilled worker into the country. Service Canada must sign off on an LMIA document that proves no Canadian worker is available to do the job an employer requires – a process that can take up to five months.

Meanwhile, Canada is negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union, which could be signed as early as this year. Harwood said it could give Vancouver access to more tech workers from across the pond if more tech companies exploit labour market exemptions.

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