Immigration: A Canadian imperative in a knowledge economy

Mark Henderson
October 16, 2017

Varying opinions abound regarding the immigration policy of Canada – both in favor and against. However, if as a country we want to build a knowledge economy, immigration is a critical piece of the puzzle.  Even before the argument is laid out, let’s understand what a knowledge economy is in its simplest form.

A Grade 3 example of a knowledge economy

In the traditional economy we produce a widget, ascribe a value of $10 and then sell it to one person, generating $10. In the knowledge economy, on the other hand, we create an idea, ascribe a value of $10 and sell it to multiple people, generating much more than $10. And, if we patent the idea so that its duplication is limited, further value is created.

Once this simple example is internalized, it is an easier leap to the conclusion that brainpower and skill set are the critical inputs to produce/generate the necessary outputs. Buying and selling ideas is fundamentally different than buying and selling a gallon of gas or a bushel of corn. And we as a country need this new input resource (brainpower) in abundance to stay competitive in a global market.

So where are we today? In the tech sector, the unemployment rate is chronically hovering below 4%, meaning companies have jobs but cannot find requisite resources. Various studies bear out that even though the compensation is greater in the tech sector, the supply continues to be low. This low supply is due to several factors: shrinking enrolment in engineering, science and technical programs in our universities/colleges; low participation of women in technology professions, and less than adequate intake (through attraction) of talent from the global market.

Where do we go from here?

Is there a simple recipe we can follow not only to meet the current shortfall but also to establish a game-plan that sets us apart in a knowledge economy? Keep in mind, even in our traditional resource based economy, it is the adoption and use of knowledge-based products and solutions that will keep it competitive. Therefore, it is extremely important that we impress upon our youth (across both genders) why they need to go to college and university and participate in programs that allow them to engage in a knowledge economy in a fulsome manner. There is no escaping we are in a KNOWLEDGE ECONOMY and we must have the key raw material in abundance – brain power.

However, most studies agree that even if we build up our internal supply of talent, we as a country will be in short supply. Attracting the right talent to Canada is critical. We need the entrepreneurs (idea generators) and skilled individuals that we do not have in sufficient numbers. Immigration policy needs to attract them from all around the globe with the right incentives ranging from financial to societal to political. These folks typically tend to be younger and will settle here with family, hence policy elements must take that into account. Canada must become a destination place.

In addition, we need to look at our workforce and assess, should we also attract senior (older) talent with global experience who can provide the much-needed advice/guidance to build and scale organizations in a global market? This is a different topic, which we won’t cover today. But suffice to say, we as country do not have sufficient bench strength of people with requisite skills and experience, who have built and operated truly global organizations with footprints in multiple geographies. Young/new entrepreneurs will need this guidance to build and grow in a global arena. There is no substitution for mentorship from people with first-hand knowledge of a market.

Three different types of talent need

We need to look at  immigration policy from the perspective of how global companies move their staff around to support their business needs. This truly is an immigration policy issue. Once again to simplify, in a global market most companies have three broad needs.

One: the “flying squads” — typically young talent that is deployed for specific projects (mostly when there is an issue) that can last from three to nine months. An immigration policy which does not acknowledge this aspect of staff deployment ends up creating two negative outcomes. First, the company may lose the contract because they cannot secure the right skills in time. Second, the customer does not have the best global talent delivering the project. This is a time-sensitive issue for both parties.

Two: “knowledge transfer” is another aspect of business requirements. Global companies may often need a senior technologist or senior manager to come into the country for an extended period, often two to five years, to help build the team and transfer the knowledge. The immigration policy needs to understand this need and address the issues around it.

Three: “longer term/permanent” is the final aspect where the talent comes into the country for long-term deployment as part of career development or as a permanent move, typically with family. These talents could range from junior level to very senior level based on the specific needs of a corporation.

Therefore, talent/skill attraction and development has several aspects to it, each with very different implications for immigration policy. They all need to be addressed in tandem, with policies designed for each situation. Doing so will ensure that we as a country not only build up our own homegrown talent but also create an environment with supporting policies that will attract the best and brightest to Canada. The key is to understand the intricacies of how the current global players move and deploy talent to stay ahead and serve them better.

There will be war over this precious resource and we must do everything we can to give Canada the best chance to win in a world where IDEAS create value.

Karna Gupta is board chair of Venture Lab and VOTI Inc, former president and CEO of the Information Technology Association of Canada and former CEO of Certicom.


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