Government policy changes in Canada and the U.S. are shifting international tech talent north of the 49th parallel, an artificial intelligence expert says.
TORONTO – THE CANADIAN tech sector is booming. Toronto, the country’s biggest city, enjoyed the biggest growth in technology jobs of any North American city during the past five years.
Experts attribute the dramatic growth to government policy on both sides of the 49th parallel. In recent years, the United States has made it more difficult for high-skilled workers to get visas, while Canada has moved in the opposite direction.
In 2017, the federal government launched an initiative to help Canadian employers bring international tech talent into the country more easily. The number of successful applicants to the Global Skills Strategy has risen fivefold in the past three years, with more than 23,000 workers approved in the top five tech categories.
At the same time, U.S. tech companies such as Facebook, Netflix, Amazon and Alphabet are expanding Canadian operations.
To get a better sense of how the Canadian tech sector has changed, U.S. News & World Report reached out to Fakhri Karray, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Waterloo, in Waterloo, Ontario. He is co-director of the University of Waterloo Artificial Intelligence Institute.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Since the Canadian government launched the Global Skills Strategy, it has attracted a growing number of tech workers, especially computer programmers and interactive media developers. Have you seen evidence of this trend?
Yes. I’m involved with a number of startup companies in the Waterloo area (about 70 miles west of Toronto) and I have seen dramatic growth in the number of highly skilled computer programmers and developers from abroad, especially India and Pakistan.
This change has led to a big influx of foreign students into programs such as mine. The number has increased dramatically in each of the past three years. A few years ago, I was teaching between 20 and 25 foreign students in my program. That number is now between 120 and 150. A lot of these students come from India and Pakistan. Some come from China.
When they graduate some of them go to the U.S. but most stay here in Canada.
What do tech workers and students from abroad bring to the table? How have their contributions affected the development of the tech sector here?
There has been amazing growth in our tech sector – in areas such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud computing and software development. That has created a huge need for qualified programmers. Newcomers have this expertise. The students don’t have to take background courses in computer engineering when they arrive. They can hit the ground running. I also find that they are decent hard-working people who add a lot to the social fabric of the community.
Some U.S. tech companies are expanding operations in Canada to get around immigration restrictions south of the border.
Yes, Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has operations here. I have recently written recommendations for a number of students applying for jobs in Canada, at Google, Amazon, Microsoft and the like. Many tech companies have transferred operations here from California. I see this as a positive development.
If the federal government asked for your feedback on the Global Skills Strategy initiative, what would you say?
I would say, “So far, so good.” I would suggest just one change: Step up the effort to attract workers and students from more regions around the world. Once you get a quota from one region, like South Asia, start recruiting people from other parts of Asia, Africa, Europe, etc. This creates more diversity, which is great. Having a lot of diversity strengthens the tech sector and it strengthens the country as a whole.
If the U.S. government asked for your feedback regarding its policy around foreign tech workers, what would you say?
On this matter, I think U.S. policymakers are shooting themselves in the foot. It’s in their best interest to encourage qualified engineers to come in from abroad. Most tech industry workers in Silicon Valley are of foreign origin. Yet, the U.S. government is limiting the influx of those kinds of workers. Cutting that flow could harm tech companies in the U.S. in the long run.
Other countries have benefitted from the U.S. clampdown on immigration of skilled tech people. I know many people who were planning to go to the U.S. but changed their minds and came to Canada instead.
To be honest, I hope this trend continues. It’s contributing to the diversity and success of Canada, and helping to make this country a magnet for new technologies of the world.