Canada as branch office: When more become less

For foreign-trained IT professionals, Canada may become the destination of choice – if local companies can make themselves attractive enough. Microsoft Canada’s new software development centre in Vancouver is proof that Canada may be doing exactly that.

Microsoft said it chose Canada above the U.S. because of our neighbour’s H1-B visa regulations. That’s the limit on worker visas that, since early 2006, reduced the number of foreign-trained professionals with an equivalent U.S. Bachelor’s degree to 65,000 a year. It’s a dramatic cut compared to 130,497 in 2004 and 116,927 in 2005.

Some companies in the IT sector will benefit from the broader pool of talent, namely, big IT services companies like EDS and IBM who will be the biggest hirers, leaving the small to mid-sized businesses to compete for the dregs.

This influx of skilled labour could help meet other anticipated demands, notably the vacuum that threatens to be left behind when the baby boomers retire over the next five to 10 years.

IT World Canada’s 2007 IT Job Market and Salary Survey found 60 per cent of IT companies are planning to hire new staff this year, however, they are planning to source experienced professionals rather than new grads. Given the large majority of foreign-trained professionals applying for worker visas are experienced talent, the H1-B cap would appear, on the surface, to complement this recruitment strategy rather well.

However, the danger is it will leave new grads in the lurch, ultimately decreasing enrollment in IT school programs. So, while the H1-B cap will strengthen Canada’s economy, it may not be on the backs of locally-trained talent.

However, it’s the right skills that ultimately count, especially as the role of IT becomes more strategic and communication and business skills are in demand. An influx of foreign workers won’t mean they bring the right talent the industry needs, or even if they are skilled enough.

As well, cultural savvy will prove vital to the survival of an IT department that becomes increasingly culturally diverse, where misunderstandings and miscommunications in the workplace create discord. IT managers should factor in cultural differences and language barriers in team management.

An influx could lead to a bottle neck of worker visa applications, and in an effort to reduce strain on the immigration system, the process that was once lax could suffer a similar cap as that in the U.S. To avoid that extreme, immigration should impose a more stringent selection criteria, primarily to ensure the incoming talent will bring skills the industry actually needs.

Anyhow, Microsoft’s expansion north of the border, if successful, probably won’t be a singular move, as other tech firms will likely follow suit. And while the law welcomes new businesses, it also stands to keep existing ones from leaving.

In the end, we may be attractive to foreign talent, but it will whittle down to quality not quantity.

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