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Canada needs 218,000 more ICT workers

A shortage of ICT workers in Canada may mean losing out in the innovation race.

There’s no stopping the onward march of technology. In the not-so-distant future, pizzas will be delivered by drones. Cars will drive themselves. Humans will work alongside robots. Machines will ‘learn’ by themselves.

Some are calling this the next industrial revolution.

For years, we’ve been facing a shortage of skilled IT pros in Canada. We don’t have enough workers to satiate the demand, and it’s been harder to attract the best foreign talent, which is also being wooed by Silicon Valley — a hub of some of the most brilliant tech minds in the world. Indeed, for the past couple of decades Canada has experienced its own brain drain, as some of our best and brightest have been heading south to California.

Although innovation isn’t going to disappear, it may be temporarily hindered — or it may simply relocate. And we may start to see new tech hubs pop up in other parts of the world with friendlier policies toward tech innovation and global workforces. One example in our own backyard is Silicon Valley North in the Kitchener-Waterloo area — already offering half the number of jobs compared to the Californian community.

The Canadian need for ICT employees

However, the promising number of workers in Silicon Valley North is still not enough.

Some 182,000 skilled ICT workers will be needed in Canada by 2019, with another 36,000 by 2020, according to not-for-profit think tank the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC). Without the ability to fill these roles, we’ll fall behind in the race for innovation.

That’s why Ottawa came up with a plan — unveiled in the fall — to make it easier for Canadian tech firms and multinationals operating in Canada to bring in skilled foreign workers. The plan includes creating a fast-track visa program that would take only two weeks for approving visas and work permits, rather than the tedious months-long process that currently exists. It also includes creating a 30-days-a-year work permit, which could be used for short stints such as work and study exchanges.

 Related: "Winnipeg is becoming a high-profile innovation incubator" 

So what does this mean for Canada?

Like Brexit, where companies headquartered in London are moving all or parts of their operations to other centres in Europe, it’s possible we may one day see an emigration of talent out of Silicon Valley. Several Canadian tech entrepreneurs say they’ve noticed more interest recently from prospective employees living in the U.S., according to an article in The Globe and Mail.

There’s already infrastructure here, which could be expanded to accommodate an influx of workers from Silicon Valley. “U.S. tech giants including Alphabet’s Google, Microsoft and Amazon all have sizable offices in Canada and immigration already plays a key role in their presence: the companies have been known to bring workers to Canada from South Asia or Eastern Europe to get them closer to headquarters while they wait for them to clear more stringent U.S. visa requirements,” according to an article in the Toronto Star.

Bolstering Canada’s tech sector, starting in Vancouver

Tech workers in the U.S. may also have an added incentive to join the Canadian sector, which could be a positive impact north of the border.

A new initiative called True North, launched by Canadian and U.S. entrepreneurs, is offering an option for those who hold an H-1B visa working for an American company. In the event there are changes in employment or visa policies, these workers could mitigate the risk by relocating to Vancouver.

“This plan makes it simple for you to immediately gain the necessary paperwork to set up a Canadian work and residency status similar to what you have in the U.S.,” according to True North. The package includes airfare to Vancouver, two nights’ accommodation and a meeting with immigration professionals.

The ICT march continues

Whether such initiatives will solve the Canadian tech industry’s brain drain dilemma, only time will tell.

But one thing is for sure — there’s no stopping the onward march of technology, and even with a few obstacles in its path the world will continue to evolve. We’ll never go back to a world without smartphones, connected devices and artificial intelligence. And those who foster innovation — rather than hinder it — will be best prepared for the radically different future that awaits us.

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Vawn Himmelsbach

Vawn Himmelsbach is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. She has covered technology and travel for 15 years, for media outlets such as, The Globe & Mail, Metro News, ITBusiness, PCworld Canada and Computerworld Canada. She also spent three years living abroad and working as an Asian correspondent.

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