Why immigration is key to Canada’s innovation agenda
Last month, Canadians went to the polls to vote on the future of our country. During the campaign, the parties focused on issues like health care, affordability and climate change—no surprise.
But as these issues dominated the agenda, others fell to the wayside. This included the struggle to attract and find talent for a prosperous Canada. This issue is real today and it will only get more critical if we don’t start addressing it now. One such example is for Canada’s fastest growing sector—the digital economy.
The digital economy provides billions of everyday online connections among people, businesses, devices, data, and processes in Canada. It is one of Canada’s most important sectors. In 2017, the digital economy nationally was worth $109.7 billion, around 5.5% of the overall economy, and employed nearly 900,000 people. Over the last three years, our digital economy has been growing at three times the rate of the rest of the economy. That makes it essential to the future of our country.
But the sector is facing critical challenges. Earlier this month, more than 100 Canadian tech CEOs penned an open letter asking political leaders to pay more attention to the barriers to growth. One of the biggest is a challenge that I have returned to in several posts since this summer—a critical need for new workers to complement Canada’s homegrown talent.
Between 2018 and 2040, 11.8 million people will graduate from Canadian schools and become workers, far short of the 13.4 million workers exiting the labour force. Immigration will account for all of Canada’s net labour force growth—3.7 million workers—and one-third of the economic growth rate between 2018 and 2040, according to the Conference Board of Canada.
There is certainly reason for optimism when it comes to immigration. During the election, the major parties supported robust economic immigration—an encouraging step. And Canada’s immigration system is already a global leader in attracting and integrating skilled immigrants. The government has expanded on this with promising new programs in recent years like the Global Skills Strategy that allows companies to obtain work permits for foreign talent in less than two weeks, and the Start-Up Visa program that allows immigrant entrepreneurs to work in Canada if their start-up has secured funding from venture capitalists or angel investors.
But we mustn’t be complacent. As the letter from tech CEOs highlighted, our current track still leaves a major talent gap in this critical sector. The risk is clear. If these jobs go unfilled, our digital economy will not be the driving economic force we need it to be—if we want our grandchildren to enjoy the same Canada we have enjoyed and enjoy today.
A new government—and in fact, all parties—must act to tackle the looming talent gap. In our recent report on AI, we heard from experts and industry leaders that an expanded startup visa program would go a long way to helping international PhDs stay in Canada and start their own AI businesses. Government can also work with industry to improve and simplify credential recognition, ensuring immigrants are able to find secure positions in their chosen field of work. Businesses themselves can play a role by contributing to the training and integration of new Canadians.
These actions would be a start, but over the long term a more comprehensive shift to Canada’s current strategy is needed. At a time when countries are looking inward, Canada’s effective immigration system is an invaluable competitive advantage. But with major talent shortages in regions and critical sectors like the digital economy, more work remains to be done. The time is now to tackle the challenge.
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