Jordan: For a long, long time there was just one destination. If you were an ambitious tech innovator and eager to change the world, America, Silicon Valley in California was your first choice. Probably the New York Silicon Alley was right there too. Washington State, Chicago, Massachusetts, all of them home to the industry’s biggest companies and cutting edge facilities. And they still are home for those companies and facilities that might no longer be enough.
NPR Clip: Okay. I, I’m going back to my Google search. Who here is new to Canada? You have a show of hands. Unbelievable. Who here has been newer to Canada in less than three months? Anyone beat three months?
Jordan: It was originally a casual prediction made around the time of Donald Trump’s first travel ban in 2017
NPR Clip: So we have a travel ban. It’s a very powerful ban. We’re adding a couple of countries to it. We have to be safe. Our country has to be safe.
Jordan: Would usurp American ones. As the place of choice for up and coming tech talent.
Now, three years later, the results are coming in and both Toronto and Vancouver are rapidly climbing the charts and now, depending on what happens down South in November, this shift might turn out to be much more than a temporary blip. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Joel Rose is a correspondent based in Washington, DC with NPR. He covers, among other things, immigration. Hey Joel.
Joel: Hey Jordan. How you doing?
Jordan: I’m doing pretty well, especially cause Canada is beating the U S at something right now.
Joel: That was sort of my editor’s headline, but yeah, yeah. Yeah. Canada, Canada’s winning Canada is winning.
Jordan: We’ll take it where we can find it. Um, why don’t you start, before we get into the whole story, just tell me a little bit, uh, about Jason Goldlist, who’s one of the characters in your piece? Who is he and why does he sound like a game show host?
Joel: So, Jason Goldlist was the emcee of this event that I attended in Toronto a couple of weeks ago.
NPR Clip: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome, welcome. Welcome. The first Tech TO the decade. Woo. Here we go.
Joel: Uh, hosted by this organization called Tech Toronto. And Jason is the cofounder and they do several of these events a month where folks in the tech industry kind of get together. They watch presentations from their successful peers up on the podium, kind of like little TED talks or what have you. And they schmooze. There’s a lot of schmoozing. There’s pizza, there’s beer. And I wanted to be there because this is also an entry point for people who are new in town trying to learn their way around, um, the tech scene in Toronto. And I wanted to find people, you know, who had just arrived. And sure enough, dozens of people at this event had just arrived. Um, one of the questions that Jason asks that most of these events is, who here is new in Canada?
NPR Clip: So who here is new to Canada you have a show of hands. Unbelievable.
Joel: At the event I saw there were dozens of hands in the air. Um all over this auditorium, and I should say there were like hundreds of people in the auditorium, probably like 500 and not all of them were new in town, but a big chunk were. And if you think about it, they’re doing like three, four events like this every month. And I think you’d get a similar percentage of new Canadians at every one of these events. And just sort of an illustration of how many people are coming into this tech scene from around the world all the time. And that’s why I wanted to be there, just to, to talk to some of these people who had just moved to Canada, you know, and get some of their stories. Some of them had moved directly to Canada, others had come from the U S and had left for one reason or another, and moved North. Others were coming from outside of North America. Uh, and were landing for the first time in Canada. Yeah.
Jordan: Can you put into context a little bit, um, what is going on with the tech scene in Toronto right now? And I guess in Vancouver too? Um, it’s one thing to sort of anecdotally. I look at these events, but, uh, what kind of numbers do we have?
Joel: By some measures, Toronto’s tech scene is actually growing faster than any other city in North America, including San Francisco, including Seattle, including New York, like these big, you know, cities in the U S that have been magnets for tech workers for, you know, forever. And you know, by some measure, Toronto has eclipsed them. And Vancouver is not that far. Behind. Vancouver is also cracked, sort of the top five in terms of the fastest growing tech scenes, uh, in North America. So they’re clearly doing something to attract all these, all these workers and enter all these jobs and I, you know, so that’s what’s going on. I think it’s worth pointing out, you know, in terms of total tech jobs, they probably still have a ways to go to catch up to these big US cities that I’ve just named, but they’re making up the ground pretty fast.
Jordan: When you talk to people in the industry for this piece, how unusual is that? To see two Canadian cities jump ahead of some of the US cities that I would certainly, uh, associate with tech industry more than Toronto or Vancouver.
Joel: I think it’s a pretty big change. When I first wrote about the Canadian tech industry a couple of years ago after President Trump took office, people told me that Canada kind of used to be known for brain drain, that the country produced really good engineers and software developers and then basically watched them leave.
Jordan: That’s been a long standing issue in Canada.
Joel: So this is a big change in that sense, right? Canada is now keeping more of those brains in jobs, and it’s also now importing tech talent from other countries, including from the US and also outside of North America. People who previously would have, you know, been flocking directly to the Bay area and Seattle and, and the, you know, the usual suspects are now taking a harder look at other markets and the Canadian cities seem to be benefiting from that.
Jordan: Can you give me an example of maybe just one of the people you talked to in Toronto and kind of what, what their story is and how they ended up in Canada?
Joel: Um, sure. I talked to several people who had, um, trained or worked in the US and then just decided for one reason or another that Canada was where the future was for them. I guess one person I would talk about is Bosko Yolak.
NPR Clip: So when I was on my last year of my PhD, I wanted to go abroad and gain more experience.
Joel: She is a computational biologist, originally from Turkey, um, and had done her advanced studies in Europe and then in Baltimore, Maryland in the US and she told me she did not even really seriously apply for jobs in the US.
NPR Clip: When I was applying for the States, I was already informed by several, um, cultures and several friends that getting a visa in us is not easy.
Joel: Like she was well-educated on it. She knew. How difficult it was that you have to find an employer who really wants you, who’s willing to sponsor you for the visa, and then you are really tightly bound to that employer because your visa is bound to that employer. And if you want to change jobs, it’s a real complicated situation. Um, and even just in the first place, getting the approval to work for that employer who wants you, right? You’ve already got the, essentially the job offer. But then there’s a great deal of like lawyering and paperwork that you have to go through to get the approval. There’s a visa lottery. You may not even get it. It’s extremely complicated and time consuming and expensive, and she said, you know what? I don’t need.
NPR Clip: It becomes a full time job just to understand and learn, the process of the visa applications.
Joel: I’m just not gonna try that hard to find a job in the US. I’m going to look in Canada. And she found a company in Toronto and working in computational biology, she went up, she checked out the city, she liked it. She got the offer. The work permit came through in weeks. You know, as soon as she had all her paperwork in order from Europe and everywhere else that she’d lived, and then she, you know. Started the job, uh, just a couple of weeks ago at this company called Protein Cure. And, um, just it would’ve been, if she’d moved, tried to move to Chicago if she tried to move to, you know, where the big pharma companies are in the States, in New Jersey or California, Boston. I mean, the jobs are there, but it just would have been much more difficult for her personally and much more expensive. And she just said, you know what? Toronto is great. I’ve got a job there. I like this company. And there she is. She’s working.
Jordan: Well given that and that the immigration policies that you cover play such a big role in some of these decisions, is this really, um, something that Toronto or Vancouver are doing right? Or is it more just benefiting from something, uh, America is doing wrong right now, or maybe not even wrong, but, uh. Something that has fundamentally changed?
Joel: I think the answer to that is both. Like, I think the immigration system in the US was never particularly user friendly even before the Trump administration came to power, right? And, but the reality is now that it’s gotten even harder for tech workers to get visas, the denial rate for the new, for new H1B visas is way up. In the past couple of years, it used to be like more than 90% got approved. Now the approval rate is down. Almost just about 75% which you know is still a lot, but it’s a difference right? And I think tech workers see that difference. Tech companies see that difference, and it’s made everybody a little bit more reluctant to go through this process because there’s more uncertainty. It was always long. It was always slow and expensive, but you kind of knew at the end of the day, you’d get your visa for your worker and they’d work for you. And now there’s more uncertainty in people’s minds. And I think that really is pushing some tech workers away. Um, not just the policy itself, right? But the perception that’s causing people to look elsewhere. And when they look at Canada, I think they see that the country is doing the exact opposite, right? The country is making it easier for these high skilled workers to come in and start working quickly. And, um. They notice. You know, the new Canadians that I talked to, like how quickly they can get in, that they can get this work permit in some cases in just a few weeks, um, compared to whatever it is, months or years, probably months. But whatever, a long period of time, they’d have to wait in the US and another thing they talk about is how quickly they can get permanent residency in Canada. In the U S that can take years and years to get a green card, as we call it. And the exact way time sort of depends on what country you’re coming from. For people from India and China in particular, where a lot of people are coming, there’s a really long line and the wait times can be measured actually in decades in some cases. So, um, compare that to Canada. You get a passport in under five years. You know? So that kind of certainty seems very attractive to people who want to put down roots, want to have a family. Um, hard to do that when you don’t really know what the immigration process is going to be for you a few years down the road. And, um, if it’s ever going to lead to you having a passport in your new country, uh, you know, that’s very, it’s something people are thinking about when they make these decisions. They’re not just thinking about, you know, this job or, you know, even the second job, they’re really. Moving their whole lives to North America and they want to know like, what is going to happen to my family and where are we going to be in five or 10 years and Canada offers a much more predictable path if you’re looking out that far.
Jordan: How do American companies feel about this? Because you mentioned earlier that the jobs are still there in the States. People are just choosing elsewhere because it’s easier there. But these guys are used to being the top choice for tech workers, right?
Joel: They are. And I think, you know, to be totally fair, I think they still are in a lot of cases, right? I mean, the Bay Area still has the cachet. It has the venture capital. It has all of that. Um, Seattle and New York, like people still want to work in these places, but, um, the H1B visas in this country are capped at 85,000 a year, or many, many more applicants than that number of visas, right? There’s a lottery. The slots fill up really fast. So I don’t want to overstate the impact on US businesses. But at the same time, there’s a huge demand for tech workers in the US and if you talk to the business, to the people who are trying to do hiring at startups and companies that are trying to scale up, they are like, where are the workers? Show me the workers. I will go where they are. I just can’t find enough.
Jordan: Right. Well, you attended a, you attended a meeting. Dealing with this very thing. Tell me about that.
Joel: It was at a very nice restaurant in New York city. It’s called Del Posto. It’s sort of a wine cellar vibe, you know? So it was a basement room, and I think about a dozen, 15. Uh, hiring managers from different startups and tech companies in New York had come to this dinner and it was being thrown by a company called Mob Squad.
NPR Clip: And there’s about 30,000 open software engineering roles in San Francisco alone right now today. There’s over a couple of hundred thousand in the US.
Joel: So the founder of this company is a guy named Irfhan Rawji, and he’s a longtime tech industry guy, works in venture capital. So Mob Squad is his company, and their offering is a little complicated. I’ll try to boil it down. Basically they are saying, if you can’t get your tech worker a visa in the US or their visa expires or whatever, do the next best thing. Have them work for you remotely from Canada and we’ll set them up in an office. They’ll still work for you. They’ll still be the team member you know and love. They’ll just be in Halifax or in Calgary or you know, somewhere several hour flight away. And you can have the best of both worlds, right? You can have them in North America. They don’t have to go back to India or China where you’ve got a huge time difference and IP problems and all sorts of other issues. They’ll come to Canada. We’ll set them up. They’ll work for you.
NPR Clip: If you’d rather feel a job and go without work with us, we’ll open a virtual subsidiary for you in Canada. You get access to the world.
Joel: This is targeting the small company, right? They can’t afford to just go sign a lease in Toronto or Vancouver and hire 50, 100 engineers the way the big boys can, right? The way that, like the Facebooks and Googles, whatever, they are opening Canadian operations in some cases, but, um, they don’t need his, they don’t need the help of this company Mob Squad. The value proposition that mob squad is offering is really for like a small company that has one or two employees that they want to keep or want to hire. And US immigration law is somehow in the way of that. Here’s a way you can still have them work for you in North America, just, you know, North of the border.
Jordan: So does that mean a lot of the tech workers that, that Canada is? Well, I guess that we are kind of bragging about, are actually working for American companies? And so it’s not, not necessarily a burgeoning Canadian tech company industry, uh, just home to more jobs?
Joel: That’s a really good question. And I have not cracked the numbers on that, so I don’t want to, um, opine from on high. But my sense is it’s both, right? It’s like US companies are coming into the market chasing the tech talent that they need and that they swear up and down they cannot find in the U S and here’s an opportunity to hire great engineers and get them working for you quickly from around the world or from Canada. I don’t think that’s the only thing that’s happening here. I mean, I think clearly there’s a lot of startup activity in Toronto and Vancouver and a lot of, there’s a lot going on. There was a lot going on before the Trump administration came in and tightened the screws on us immigration policy. Right? This is not something that just happened in the last couple of years. I think what’s new about it may be that the US companies are taking note, right? That they’re saying, Oh wait, there really is a concentration of talent up there that I can get access to, and they need these engineers and developers with the talent to make the products that they need to bring to market. So they’ll go where that talent is.
Jordan: What’s the ultimate impact, uh, on the tech industry and the two countries, if this trend doesn’t change? Um, I know you mentioned that, you know, the Bay Area and other places are still probably well ahead in terms of total workers, um, but does this gap in terms of new workers continue to widen?
Joel: Look, the US industry is so big and so well capitalized and you know, like all the other things that I’ve already mentioned, like in San Francisco, in Seattle, in New York, like I don’t think that advantage disappears. What the people I interviewed for this story would say is that the tech worker who wants to go and start out on their own, start a new company, that person may be looking a lot harder at Toronto or Vancouver now than they ever did before. You know, is Silicon Valley going to someday be supplanted? I don’t think we can say that right now, but, um, but you know, this is, this has unintended consequences, right? If you have an immigration policy that makes more startup workers think about starting somewhere else, like they will, and, and who knows where that goes.
Jordan: Well, my last question was going to be about the upcoming election and, um, I won’t ask you about what happens if someone else wins, because we obviously don’t even know who’s going to be running against Trump, but does the Trump administration, uh, assuming they remain in power, do they understand that this is becoming an issue, uh, that US tech companies are maybe not happy about? And have they talked about making it any easier, at least for specific individuals, uh, to get jobs in the States?
Joel: They do talk about this issue, and they do sound sympathetic to the industry when they talk about it. So for instance, President Trump gave an interview a couple of weeks ago to a host on the Fox news channel.
NPR Clip: I hear that your team is planning on advocating more foreign workers coming in for some of these high tech companies. I’m very concerned about that, as are a lot of your supporters.
Joel: And they actually got into a pretty contentious discussion about this question, where the host was sort of pushing President Trump saying, will you promise to protect American workers? How are you protecting American workers here? And president Trump said, well, I’m protecting American, essentially, I’m protecting American companies, right? They need to be competitive. They need to be able to hire the best talent from around the world. And once people have gone to our universities, they need to be able to keep them here in the States. So, um, yeah, now, I think the president certainly was articulating the position that Silicon Valley would take on this, right? That we need to be able to capture the best talent and not be scaring it away. The tricky thing is that immigrants themselves, tech workers themselves, are not getting that message from the policies. And you know, like the, the Turkish woman I mentioned earlier, um, I, I, you know, read the president’s remarks to her and she said, and she’d just laughed.
NPR Clip: So if he binds all the countries who brings the brainpower, how is he going to get the brain power?
Joel: You know, they’re not making it easier for me to stay here and to work for a company here. That’s not at all the message I’m getting. So there’s a difference, I think, between the rhetoric and the reality of the policy as it’s at least as it’s experienced by the tech workers coming in.
Jordan: Well your loss is our gain, at least for now.
Joel: That seems to be the story. Yeah.
Jordan: Thanks a lot, Joel.
Joel: You’re welcome.
Jordan: Joel Rose national correspondent with NPR. That was The Big Story. We’ve got lots more at the website, thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also talk to us on Twitter at @thebigstoryfpn. We are on any podcast app you could possibly want, Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify, even Luminary, even the free version of Luminary. If you like us, give us a rating. Give us a review. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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