Keeping Canadian talent in-house

The resources that Canada is best known for are drilled, grown or fished. More recently, Canada is being recognized for a new resource, and like our oil, trees and fish, a concerted effort is being made to keep it close to home. This resource is, of course, our brains.

During the dot-com bubble, Canada watched some of its best talent search for greener pastures south of the border, and many of them found undeniable wealth and opportunity. However, one Canadian expatriate, Gordon Kruberg, a venture capitalist, entrepreneur and former Vancouverite who now lives in Silicon Valley, views the notion of brain drain as a fallacy.

Although he moved to the U.S. to attend Stanford University, Kruberg said the balmy temperatures, the intellectual and business climate and the community he found in Silicon Valley convinced him to stay. But he does not see himself as a Canadian brain drain statistic. Rather, Kruberg imagines himself and other Canadian expatriates working in the U.S. as wings of the home country.

This is a concept, Kruberg said, that has worked tremendously for countries such as India, Israel and Ireland.

“These countries have had real tech booms as a result of companies in the U.S. exporting parts of their technologies there, and one of the biggest reasons for the successes there is the socialization between immigrants living in the (San Francisco) Bay area and their home country,” he said. “It’s not a brain drain so much as it’s an extension of the social fabric of business across two countries.”

not just a cross-border issue

The brain drain phenomenon is more than Canadians packing up and heading to the U.S. It’s a problem faced by small communities losing their youth to larger urban centres. It’s faced by Prairie and Maritime provinces watching their homegrown talent move to larger, wealthier provinces. Companies that can’t retain their best people when headhunters come calling experience it too.

Now, despite the fact that times are tougher and bright people are looking for jobs, companies haven’t forgotten the impact of Canada’s brain drain. Many are focusing on their attraction and retention strategies and doing what they can to hold onto their valuable resources for when the economic pendulum swings the other way.

Joel Tennison, manager of marketing at Malibu Engineering and Software Ltd. in Calgary and delegate at Canada25’s 2001 forum on how to attract and retain top talent in Canada, agrees that brain drain is more than a cross-border issue.

“Once you lose someone from your company, it doesn’t really matter where they go – to the U.S., to the next province or down the street to another company – they’re lost anyway,” he said.

For Sandy McIntosh, vice-president of human resources at Alcatel Canada in Kanata, Ont., today’s attraction and retention strategies are developed with a firm eye on tomorrow.

“Because the market isn’t as aggressive now as it was and people are happy to have jobs, it’s easy for companies to get lazy, which is a dangerous position to take. You don’t want to be caught not paying attention to what’s important to employees now, because realistically, attrition and competition are going to rebound. We want to keep people feeling good about working here,” she said.

In Alcatel’s case, part of its attraction and retention strategy is maintaining a strong relationship with Canadian universities.

“A lot of high tech companies have pulled out of campuses, but we’ve found literally a volume increase of 10 times at our open houses. While we’re not hiring the same volumes that we once were, we know that it’s an investment for the future and that it will serve us well when the economy bounces back,” McIntosh said.

Terry Stepien, president of iAnywhere Solutions in Waterloo, Ont., defined his company’s views on retention as having three distinct parts. iAnywhere Solutions grew from just over 100 to 300 employees during the dot-com boom and experienced a turnover in the low single digits during that timeframe, according to Stepien.

“First of all, the work has to be interesting and continually advancing into new frontiers in the industry,” he said. “Secondly, the company has to be located in a major technology centre. We’re in Waterloo where over 100 software companies are based within the community, and have designed themselves around the university, which is a tech hub with co-op programs and research facilities.”

The third way to retain a workforce is to provide employees with a community with affordable housing, healthcare and good recreation facilities, Stepien said.

“The tech industry is very well suited to Canada, the culture and the skill sets here,” he said.

an attractive lifestyle…for some

According to Tennison, it is this way of thinking that will turn Canada into a centre for brain gain rather than the other way around.

“As the world becomes more global and people are choosing where to work, they’re not going to go to places just because of economic opportunity, but to places that offer a balance – places that are economic, but also cultural, recreational and personal-lifestyle oriented,” Tennison said. “We still tend to think of ourselves as the place to go if you’re not good enough to go to the U.S. It’s not very constructive.”

Jim Guillet, assistant vice-president for switched data networks and broadband in the networks division at Alcatel Canada, has resisted offers from headhunters south of the border for these very reasons.

“I’ve been around different industries, but I’m settled here. If you’ve got a good thing going, you don’t walk away from it,” he said.

Guillet said that a member of his team moved down to San Francisco for business opportunities but has recently returned. “He went down for business reasons and came back for family reasons – he’s got a wife and kids now, and wanted the lifestyle that we offer here for his family,” he said.

While Dinno Kovic, a former Torontonian now living in San Francisco, said he would consider moving back to his home and native land, he’s not considering it seriously. For Kovic, the benefits of staying and living in Silicon Valley far outweigh those of returning to Canada.

“For me to move back, I’d have to have a more comfortable lifestyle than the one I have down here,” he said.

Kovic, who moved to the Bay area in late 1997, thought that he would cash in on the dot-com craze and move back up to Toronto after making some U.S. dollars.

“I started making money, met a lot of great people and realized that the way to do business down here was very non-restrictive as compared to Canada with taxes,” he said. Kovic eventually married a third-generation San Franciscan and says that he has settled there.

“With all that in mind, San Francisco’s my home now,” he said.

Kovic and Kruberg both maintain contact with what’s going on in Canada through a San Francisco-based group called Digital Moose Lounge. Organized for Canadian expatriates in the technology field living in Silicon Valley, the group serves as a network for business contacts and for information such as where to buy Coffee Crisps and Canadian beer in the Bay area.

more than a paycheque

While the pull of the U.S. dollar may keep some Canadians working south of the border, Canadian companies are banking on their employees wanting more than a fast buck.

Joanne Moore, technical resources program manager at IBM Toronto’s Software Laboratory, said the number one reason why people want to stay with an organization is the opportunity to evolve within their career. “Compensation is important, but my experience is that providing ongoing training and education, the opportunity to see a clear career path, and the ability to work with smart, bright, technical people, is what keeps our employees happy,” she said.

Denise Stewart, a technical service analyst in systems and technology at the Royal Bank of Canada in Toronto, said this sort of balance encouraged her to stay with her company. “I’ve kept on with the Royal Bank because it’s helped me to develop my career,” she said, noting that she is currently taking courses through the bank on project management, human resources management and is enrolled in a certified Internet Web master program.

While she would consider moving to the U.S., Stewart said she would only do so by transferring within the Royal Bank.

This kind of loyalty is the goal, according to Tennison.

“It all comes down to individuals – the worker bees,” he said. “The companies that can encourage their employees to keep a work-life balance when things are rough – and it’s usually one of the first things to go – will be far ahead of those that don’t when things get better.”

Reversing the tide

Meanwhile, the brain gain phenomenon, when qualified IT professionals move to Canada and end up in the field, is not uncommon in Canada’s tech industry.

According to Giuseppa de Paola-Baranyi, manager of strategy and operations at Xerox Research Centre of Canada in Mississauga, Ont., brain gain within an organization can be a result of good recruitment strategies. XRCC employs 120 research scientists who hail from 35 different countries, and makes a concerted effort to bring in top talent from outside of Canada by participating in a work placement program spearheaded by the federal government.

“We hire about 30 per cent of these placements. According to Stats Canada, there are four times as many university graduates entering Canada as there are degree holders leaving Canada for the U.S.,” she said.

This coincides with the results of study conducted earlier this year, jointly researched by Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), analyst firm IDC Canada and Aon Consulting, that states because of such strong immigration numbers, there isn’t really a net loss in Ontario’s IT sector due to brain drain.

Then there’s the reverse brain drain. Robert Antoniades, a Canadian expatriate who returned to Toronto from Silicon Valley within the past year, is an example of this trend.

According to Antoniades, it’s not unusual for Canadians to return home after working and living for a stretch in the U.S. “People are coming back for either economic reasons or personal reasons,” he said.

He said after the burst of the dot-com bubble, unemployed Canadians may choose to head north to weather the economic turmoil on familiar ground. Personal reasons may include being closer to family and friends as well as a preference for the Canadian lifestyle, including its education system.

In Antoniades’ case, his return to Canada was a combination of economic and personal reasons.

“In our case we have ill parents and two kids who didn’t know who their cousins were, but I was also offered a professional opportunity that was going to be a challenge, so it made a lot of sense to come back,” he said.

Part of the allure of returning to Canada, he said, is that Canadian companies tend to place a premium on candidates with U.S. experience. Moving back to Canada after working in a place like Silicon Valley allows for new perspectives on business, he said.

While he admitted that there is a potential problem with brain drain in Canada, Antoniades sees the migration of talent to the south as a positive, as long if it’s not completely one way.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing if we are able to repatriate people and they come back the better for it. As long as it’s not permanent, brain drain is okay,” he said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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