Talent trumps all

From the February 2017 print edition

Toronto-based Michael Hlinka provides business commentary to CBC Radio One and a column syndicated across the CBC network.

Say what you want about the early days of the Trump presidency, but they’ve been anything but boring.
There was one particularly contentious executive order. It was issued on January 27 and there were several different elements to it. But the one that stirred the most controversy was banned entry from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days. And in its wake, there was a great deal of protest on both sides of the border and some Canadians saw this as a great, potential opportunity.
How can this be? Let me provide a couple of direct quotes: “Canada has an opportunity to be a country where the best talent from around the world can move here and do their life’s work as never before.” These words were from Alexandra Clark, director of policy and government affairs at Ottawa-based e-commerce platform Shopify. According to some estimates, there could be a shortage of 200,000 skilled tech workers as early as 2020. Blackberry’s CEO, John Chen, noted that more than half of his company’s executive team and many of its employees are immigrants, and that Trump’s ban “gives…a little bit of a leg up in attracting talent to Canada.”
I am not here to discuss the appropriateness—or wisdom—of the Donald Trump travel ban. He was elected President of the United States—fair and square by the rules of their game—and he was explicit during the campaign that the immigration policies seen under previous administrations would be changed. That is America’s business. Not ours.
This is what is Canada’s business. I find it both shocking and disgraceful that it takes an executive order from Donald Trump to move Canadians to think that now we have the “opportunity to be a country where the best talent from around the world can move here”. Shouldn’t this have been explicit public policy—forever? If we are bringing immigrants into this country (and I’m a firm supporter of doing so) shouldn’t we be recruiting the best talent from the four corners of the earth, regardless of race, creed and national origin? The answer seems to me self-evident.
Easier said than done, right? It’s actually easier done than said. Canada brings in about 250,000 immigrants a year. And under the current system, people apply according to a points system that changes from time to time, but disproportionately rewards the university educated, whether or not there is a need for that accreditation. It’s madness.
Let’s do some arithmetic. Canada brings in about 250,000 immigrants annually. If we hired 1,000 immigration officers and paid each about $100,000 annually, it would cost $100 million. The feds spend about $300 billion annually—$100,000,000/$300,000,000,000=.0003 percent—a drop in the bucket.
Each immigration officer would be responsible for bringing in 250 Canadians a year. This works out to one a day. The smart immigration officers would cultivate contacts with employers—like Blackberry—determining what labour needs were not being filled by native-born Canadians. Jobs could be posted on a Canadian government-sponsored website, and the world’s best and brightest could apply for those opportunities.
Particularly ambitious and talented would-be Canadians could reach out to leading Canadian companies. It’s not unlikely that family members and friends, already here, would facilitate the process. Offers would be made and then the immigration officer would facilitate the entry process.
These new Canadian immigrants would, of course, be given social insurance numbers and health card numbers. Part of the deal would be that totals would be aggregated and immigration officers would be judged on the basis of things like:
total taxable income; and new businesses created/job creation. Then, based on the success of the immigrants for whom each officer was responsible for, bonuses would kick in. It’s a model that would reward excellence.
Before I leave this issue, I have to comment on the possibility of a shortage of 200,000 tech workers. Canada leads the OECD in the percent of young people who attend either college or university. This is seemingly a good thing. Yet what is the use of a post-secondary educational system if it is singularly ineffective in preparing young people for the workplace? My guess is that if you went into most Starbucks coffee shops across this country, the majority of employees, aged 30 or younger, would have a diploma or degree of some sort. What a waste of time. What a waste of human capital!
It is intellectually defensible to disagree with Donald Trump’s immigration policy. But Canadians shouldn’t be too quick to bask in sudden glory. Rather, it should cause us to look inward and think through whether our immigration policy is what it should be.