The 'Giant Sucking Sound' Is High-Skilled Workers Leaving U.S.

The 'Giant Sucking Sound' Is High-Skilled Workers Leaving U.S.
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For decades, Canada has suffered a brain drain that sucked technological and entrepreneurial talent down to Silicon Valley and other high-tech U.S. nodes. Now, President Trump’s immigration policies and attitudes are reversing that. That giant sucking sound you hear is not semi-skilled jobs going to Mexico – it is highly-skilled people leaving the United States.

While U.S. immigration policies and growing xenophobia constitute a de facto ‘no trespassing’ sign for Asians and others able to bring technological and entrepreneurial skills, Canadian policies and approaches are offering a welcome mat. For U.S. companies, most immediately those in high-tech fields, the result is disconcerting as they see the door to the United States close, even as the door to Canada opens wider. Between 2015 and 2016, for example, Toronto added more tech jobs than New York and the San Francisco Bay area combined, according to a study conducted by the real estate consortium CBRE.

New Canadian immigration policies –  awarding points based on such criteria as work skills and experience, educational attainment, and language skills – have built on a Canadian commitment to welcoming talented and entrepreneurial people from all over the world, helping to trigger a talent explosion. Large and diverse Canadian cities such as Vancouver, Montreal and especially Toronto – with its three large universities, teaching hospitals, large Asian population, a band of technology firms in the outer suburbs, and the public-private partnership known as the MaRS Discovery district – have helped turn Canada into a second home to high-tech talent, rather than a source of it.

Toronto has been diverse and multicultural for decades, but it is only relatively recently that is has leaped from a global smorgasbord of restaurants and shops to a growing array of advanced firms with links to every part of the world market. It is not surprising that so many would leave Canada for the United States – with its opportunities for high incomes, name recognition, personal branding, and building synergies. What is surprising is the fact that so much of the talent traffic is moving in the other direction. Instead of fending off recruiters from Washington, Seattle and Boston, Toronto firms have seen a spike in international interest, primarily from India, China, Brazil the United Kingdom – and most of all the United States.

Canada’s openness is only part of the reason for this talent shift; the other side of the coin is anti-immigrant views and policies promoted by the Trump Administration. A crackdown on H-!B visas, combined with “Buy American, Hire American” policies, have discouraged much global talent from entering the United States and encouraged many to leave – and head north.

The growth of leading-edge industries in Canada has put Canadian firms under the gun to recruit the talent they need. A recent estimate projected that companies will be short about 220,000 skilled tech workers by 2020 – a comparatively nice problem to have.

The challenge of filling these positions is enormous, but so are the opportunities for a country with a next-door neighbor that is home to considerable support for a ban on travel from Muslim countries, as well as tightened controls on work visas. Moreover, the potential economic benefits of a liberal immigration policy are enormous. People who leave their home country in search of opportunities elsewhere tend to self-select, bringing a high degree of entrepreneurship, problem-solving and communication skills, faith in education, and extensive personal networks built in university.

This is not a search for cheap talent. Quite the opposite – global hiring policies frequently exact a short-term financial cost on Canadian companies seeking to sponsor foreign applicants. Rather than take jobs away from recent Canadian university graduates, recruitment of foreign workers ignites a virtuous cycle – more talent leads to more and better jobs, which in turn provide a magnet for talent.

Canada has learned that the key to a bright economic future lies not in an exodus of talent, but in an incoming stampede of it.

Allan Golombek is a Senior Director at the White House Writers Group. 

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