Canada seeks foreign workers

O Canada, indeed. No H-1B visa cap. An immigration system that favors tech workers. An exchange rate that puts the Canadian dollar almost at parity with its U.S. counterpart. And now an endorsement from Microsoft Corp. as a place to develop software.

For Colin Hansen, minister of economic development in British Columbia, Microsoft’s decision last week to open a software development center in Vancouver was proof that Canada’s strategy to grow its economy is working. And it’s a strategy that is very dependent on foreign workers. Hansen said the economy in British Columbia is growing by as much as 4.5 percent a year, with technology being the fastest-growing sector. The province’s total workforce is now at about 2.3 million people, and Hansen predicts that over the next 12 years, there will be approximately 1 million job vacancies in British Columbia — half the result of retirements, and the other half due to the creation of new jobs.

But over that same 12-year period, the province’s secondary schools are expected to graduate a total of about 650,000 students. “On the very face of it, we will be short 350,000 workers, which will have to come through immigration,” Hansen said.

The Canadian government has specific programs for quickly bringing high-tech workers with certain skills into the country, a process that can take two to eight weeks, said Evan Green, an immigration attorney and partner at Toronto-based law firm Green and Spiegel.

The government “recognizes that these people don’t exist” within Canada, Green said. He added that if an employer is seeking a worker who has a specific set of skills, education and work experience and will be paid a salary on par with what Canadians earn, a foreigner can successfully get a work permit. Unlike the annual cap on the number of H-1B visas issued in the U.S., there is no numerical limit on foreign workers entering Canada, according to Green.

Microsoft, which is been a vocal critic of the H-1B program’s restrictions, announced July 5 that it plans to open the development center in Vancouver — a mere 150 miles from the company’s Seattle-area headquarters. The software vendor said it decided to set up the Vancouver facility, which is due to open in the fall, partly to help it “recruit and retain highly skilled people affected by immigration issues in the U.S.”

It was a stick-in-the-eye announcement to opponents of legislative proposals to increase the H-1B cap, and it came as Congress prepares for the next round of that debate following the recent failure in the Senate of a broad immigration reform bill that would have raised the visa cap.

John O’Grady, an economic and statistical analysis consultant in Toronto, said he thinks Canada is becoming attractive to companies like Microsoft for more reasons than its immigration policies alone. “The pendulum is just beginning to swing in our favor,” he said.

One thing that’s helping Canada retain jobs and create new ones is the fact that the Canadian dollar now is trading at about 96 cents to the U.S. dollar — much higher than in years past.

“When the Canadian dollar was low, frankly, the U.S. was this giant vacuum cleaner” taking technology jobs out of Canada, O’Grady said. With the two currencies at near parity, “that flow has stopped,” he said. Meanwhile, wages for high-tech workers can be as much as 20 percent lower than what U.S. workers are paid.

Canadians also hope that the country’s quality of life adds appeal. Taxes may be higher that they are in the U.S., but Canada offers national health insurance, a good university system and much lower crime levels. For instance, there were 35 homicides last year in Toronto, which has a population of about 2.5 million. In Chicago, with about 2.9 million people, there were 452 homicides.

In addition, Canada has become far more receptive to immigration than the U.S. is, according to O’Grady. In 2006, nearly 1.3 million foreigners became permanent residents of the U.S. But Canada — with a total population that is only about one-tenth the number of U.S. residents — has been accepting about 250,000 new permanent residents annually, O’Grady said.

In the technology sector, such immigration is needed to fill new jobs. Paul Swinwood, president of the Information and Communications Technology Council, an Ottawa-based industry group, estimates that there are about 620,000 high-tech workers in Canada. The number of available jobs is expected to increase by about 100,000 over the next several years, Swinwood said. But Canadian universities graduate only about 15,000 students with tech skills annually, short of what is required.

Swinwood said that employees who are brought in for temporary work can usually get permanent residency. “When you have a job here in Canada, that’s a pretty fair indication to the immigration department that you are of value to the country,” he said. “[Canada] has been basically built by immigration. We’re a country that looks at immigration as part of our natural birthright, and the supply of the growth of the country.”

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