By Yuen Pau Woo
Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada
How well is British Columbia doing in attracting global talent? This was one of the questions put to a panel at the recent B.C. Immigrant Employment Council’s 2014 summit.
The summit was timely and relevant, given recent reforms in Canada’s immigration program, persistent challenges in the under-utilization of immigrants, and a looming deficit of skilled workers in the face of massive resource development projects that are in the offing.
My answer was we are doing pretty well, but not generally for reasons that have to do with talent. B.C. has attracted many highly skilled immigrants because of geography and lifestyle, not because of the opportunity to apply global talent in a Canadian context. This is simply a restatement of the well-known skills mismatch that many immigrants face.
It is curious that governments and employers talk about attracting global talent, yet when companies are asked about the most important ingredient missing in immigrant qualifications, they cite Canadian experience, a point raised repeatedly at the conference.
The reality is most employers are not interested in global talent; rather, they are looking for specific skills and capabilities, developed abroad perhaps but applied to a domestic market. This is a reflection of our economic structure, which is dominated by domestically oriented, mostly small and medium sized companies. While there are companies with export interests, they tend to be in the commodity business, in which the need for international expertise tends to be less demanding than in manufacturing or services.
The vast majority of businesses in Canada don’t care if employees have had work experience in Dubai, Seoul, or Sao Paulo. On the other hand, when employers in global cities advertise for global talent, they are truly looking for workers with international savvy and experience.
Little wonder many globally talented immigrants are disappointed by the reality of the job market in this country, and eventually choose to leave Canada to pursue opportunities abroad. The Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada has estimated there could be as many as 600,000 Canadians living in Asia, most of them foreign-born.
A large population of overseas Canadian talent is not a bad thing. While some begrudge the right of Canadians to pursue career opportunities abroad (even to the point of labelling them as disloyal), it should come as no surprise that globally talented individuals are globally mobile. The key to creating benefits for Canada is to encourage our overseas citizens to stay attached to the country. There is no magic formula for, much less a guarantee of, attachment, but the current policy stance (and public attitude) towards the Canadian diaspora is one of suspicion and aloofness, and it would not take much to convey a different message.
This is not to say we should be blasé about the loss of global talent from Canada. But there are really only two ways to keep them from leaving. The first is for employers to recognize the value of international experience in their hiring practices so when they say they are looking for global talent, they mean it. Let’s stop hiding behind “lack of Canadian experience” as the main reason for not hiring foreign talent.
The second is to build an economy that requires workers with global savvy, so immigrants with international skills and connections can put those talents to use. The B.C. government’s effort to attract regional head offices to locate in the province is a step in the right direction, as is the idea that the building of an LNG industry should be based not just on the export of the commodity, but on the development of related business lines that can be globally competitive. Likewise, the emergence of industry clusters that are inherently global in orientation — such as in digital media, life sciences, and green buildings — will attract global talent for reasons that have to do with their talent, in addition to reasons of lifestyle.
B.C. has established itself as an Asia Pacific Gateway. Through a series of strategic investments in transportation infrastructure, we have succeeded in generating large and growing flows of goods and people though Vancouver, with attendant economic benefits. The bigger challenge now is to build a gateway economy, where wealth is generated not just by what flows through the gateway, but also by the globally-connected talent that works within it.
Yuen Pau Woo is President and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.