Immigration Minister Sean Fraser on Tuesday said Canada is going after so-called “digital nomads” in STEM fields amid a “global race” for high-skilled workers — and at the same time, rolling out plans to help temporary foreign workers develop more skills while they work in Canada.
Speaking at the Collision Conference in Toronto on Tuesday, Fraser said Canada was preparing a roadmap to win what he called a “global race” to attract the best tech talent in the world.
“People and capital have been more mobile than they have ever been at any point in the world’s history,” he said.
“There’s no question that as borders opened up, that we are in a global race for the same pool of talent as our competitors around the entire world. I think Canada is winning that race, but we might be winning it by an even larger margin.”
Fraser said Ottawa would be launching a new and dedicated pathway for permanent residents that’s specifically available to employees and workers in the STEM sector, which covers science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“Over the course of this year, Canada is going to be developing a specific stream for some of the world’s most highly talented people that will be able to come to Canada and work for tech companies, whether they have a job offer or not,” he said.
He also announced that Canada would be rolling out a “digital nomad strategy” for highly skilled workers in the tech sector.
“(The digital nomad strategy) is going to allow people who have a foreign employer to come and work in Canada for up to six months, live in communities in this country and spend money in communities in this country, and should they receive a job offer while they’re here, we’re going to allow them to continue to stay and work in Canada,” he said.
Fraser said Canada’s immigration strategy was informed by what’s happening in the United States.
He referenced “a public narrative around layoffs” even as there are “private conversations about opportunities.”
“Going forward, as of July 16, we will have a stream that will allow 10,000 H1B visa holders in the United States to come and work in Canada,” he said.
Fraser admitted that the startup visas program, which creates pathways to permanent residency for entrepreneurs who create companies that will hire Canadians, has not reached its potential due to “design flaws.”
He added that for those in the queue, the government will issue open work permits while they wait for their startup visa applications to be processed.
And for tech workers applying under the new process, Fraser suggested “we expect we can process that work permit within two weeks, so companies can have access to the talent they need, when they need it.”
He did not offer any details about how Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) is going to reduce processing times.
IRCC has been riddled with backlogs since the start of the pandemic. In April, there were 809,000 immigration applications in backlog. The figure included temporary resident applications, permanent applications and citizenship grants.
On June 16, the IRCC’s updated data revealed that the number of backlogged applications had risen to 820,000.
Nick Schiavo, of the Canadian Council of Innovators, said they had been calling for these reforms, specifically a digital nomad strategy, for some time now.
“When software engineers, data scientists, technology product managers and other key professionals are able to come to Canada, they will be snapped up by companies that are desperate for skilled workers,” he said.
“Easing the pathway to Canada for highly skilled technology professionals will allow Canadian companies to hire more swiftly, capitalize on market opportunities and move at the pace of business.”
Temporary foreign worker study program rules
In another significant announcement Tuesday, Fraser said temporary foreign workers (TWFs) who have valid work permits but no study permits will now be able to enrol in an educational institution without a limit on the length of the study program.
Fraser said the temporary measure went into immediate effect on Tuesday and will help TFWs develop their skills and seek better employment opportunities. He said foreign workers can study full-time or part-time while their work permits are valid or until the expiration of the policy, with no restrictions on the length of the program.
“Temporary foreign workers are incredibly important for the Canadian economy, and many have aspirations that go far beyond the work that initially brings them to Canada,” Fraser said.
“With this policy in place, we hope to empower foreign nationals to improve their skills in order to meet their career goals and achieve their dreams, while providing a future potential source of talent for our labour market.”
He added that this will help Canada fill labour requirements in key sectors of the economy such as health care and construction.
A recent Statistics Canada report said businesses across Canada were having difficulty filling job vacancies.
The report said 36.9 per cent of all businesses faced challenges, but a few sectors were the hardest hit. Recruiting high-skilled employees was a challenge for 49.5 per cent of Canada’s construction businesses, 47.4 per cent of manufacturing businesses and 46.3 per cent of businesses in the accommodation and food services industry.
The federal government’s strategy to deal with the labour shortage involves shoring up immigration. According to government data, while 50 years ago, there were seven workers for every retiree in Canada, today, that ratio is closer to three workers for every retiree.
And if Canada stays on its current trajectory, in the next 10 to 15 years, it will drop to two workers for every retiree.
The IRCC statement added that around 75 per cent of Canada’s population growth comes from immigration and by 2036, immigrants are projected to make up 30 per cent of the country’s population.