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

September 29, 2015

By Stephen Lake, Globe and Mail |

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.

Unfortunately, these glimpses of the future were seen through a thick haze of cumbersome processes, outdated requirements, and unexplained delays.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

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.

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