Americans love to joke they’ll move to Canada for any number of reasons (Tim Hortons, poutine, healthcare). But some U.S. employers may be taking a serious look at their options thanks to recent, opposing moves by the Trump administration and the nation's northern neighbor.
While one country contemplates closing borders and pausing international visa programs in favor of domestic job development, the other has expedited visa programs, encouraging highly skilled, English-speaking talent from abroad to apply.
In other words, the U.S./Canadian border may be one front in the battle between prevailing worldviews over talent and globalization.
Talent shortages, particularly in tech or STEM positions, plague American employers of all types. Some companies, like InfoSys, have opted to reignite their U.S. hiring programs in response to the Trump administration’s call to “Hire American.” Others have brought their concerns straight to the White House.
But more than anything else, employers in every country hate uncertainty. While solid immigration policy may still be years in the making in the U.S., companies are looking for solutions now.
And some are betting on Canada.
In the short-term, U.S. companies with international ties may weather the brewing storm over immigration and visa policies. But in the long term, employers already struggling to find talent may find some American wells have dried up — and moved north.
The American agenda
Examining the American take on immigration requires a full-360 view of the other domestic concerns currently absorbing the White House’s attention. Immigration reform was one of Trump’s main campaign platforms, but Republican Congressional leaders have focused mainly on the Affordable Care Act and pushing through tax reform and infrastructure planning.
Immigration has been lower on the priority list — and that may not be a surprise to politicos.
“Immigration reform has always been the bull in the china shop,” Jorge Lopez, chair of the Global Mobility and Immigration Practice Group at Littler Mendelson, told HR Dive. He’s worked in immigration law for more than 30 years. “It’s there but no one wants to talk about it.”
It’s more common for immigration leaders to talk about enforcement first, then shift to visas and benefits, he noted, which is what we are seeing now. A new I-9 form was recently released and Trump has spoken favorably of E-Verify in the past. However, Trump’s “Hire American” executive order did have a clause focused specifically on H-1B visas, changing the lottery award system to focus on skills so that American workers aren’t undercut by lower-cost foreign workers.
Proponents of the Trump stance on immigration — tough on undocumented immigrants and calling for a reform of the guest visa program — argue that visa limitations can actually help streamline the high-skilled immigration system and make it fairer. Various reports claim that large conglomerates unfairly hijack the visa lottery system, making it nearly impossible for other companies obtain any.
There is no consensus on the best way to handle immigration reform and its Rubik’s cube of complexities. The conservative Heritage Foundation favors a visa auction system. Even liberal-leaning organizations like The Economic Policy Institute have advocated for an H-1B program that requires American companies to try and hire U.S. workers first and a lottery that favors employers who will pay visa holders more than the prevailing wage.
Immigration reform has seen bipartisan support in the past, but it often gets stalled in favor of other domestic issues or mired in debate over single elements of reform, such as deportations, Lopez said. Questions over staffing are rarely answered in the debate, leaving employers in the lurch.
The Canadian agenda
Canada introduced its new immigration initiative, the Global Skills Strategy, in June. Evan Green, senior partner at Green and Spiegel and specialist in Canadian immigration law, broke it down for HR Dive.
The current plan splits employers into two categories: A and B.
Category A employers are those that are specifically increasing their employment levels in Canada and need foreign individuals to scale up their company overall. To qualify employers must:
- file with the government their “labor market business plan” (what they propose to do during the next four months); and
- agree to hire locally in Canada, specifically young and diverse employees.
Once approved, category A employers can then bring in specialized employees with an advanced degree or advanced experience (five or more years, usually, Green said) that will make upwards of $80,000 per year.
Category B employers include the “short supply” occupations, such as computer technology, web design, electronic engineering and the like — jobs that many employers are struggling to fill worldwide. To qualify, employers must:
- sign a labor market business plan (but they do not have to increase their employment levels in Canada);
- agree to increase the amount of money they spend on training the local population; and
- promise to pay foreign workers at or above the prevailing wage.
Once those qualifications are met, employers can bring in talent to fill their needs. If those employees are highly skilled and meet NOC 0 or NOC A requirements (essentially, Canada’s skill classification system), such visas can be turned around in two weeks.
Employees are also scored on a point system, largely based on age, education, work experience and whether they have family in Canada. A PhD graduate who is fluent in English would score pretty well, Green said, and the points required for visas have come down.
Is anyone ‘winning’? Tech workers, maybe
It’s obviously too early to tell how effective Canada’s global skills initiative program will be, but it does represent an interesting conundrum for U.S. employers.
Canada’s program emphasizes spending on local initiatives to encourage longer-term investments, which may not be ideal for every employer. But companies are curious, Green noted.
“Companies are looking at this and asking, ‘How do we take advantage of this?’” Green said. He has even heard of some companies considering moving their development centers to Canada thanks to the new plan, especially those in category B.
While U.S. H-1B visa applications reached their limit in only five days this year, the amount of applications actually decreased for the first time in five years. That decrease surprised Lopez, though he questioned whether some employers opted out of the process to avoid the issue entirely.
The “Buy American, Hire American” executive order could change H-1B visa management from a three-year approval period down to an 18-month approval period, which Lopez said would be “horrible” for businesses, as they would have to file for extensions more often.
That could make the H-1B visa more trouble than it's worth for many companies — but many don’t have much of a choice, Lopez said.
How jobs may move
Could the U.S. see a brain drain to Canada? Looking at the current comparison, Green said, “100 percent yes.”
“A year ago, I would have said it was very hard for someone without Canadian work experience to apply to work in Canada,” Green said. “But now it’s easier.”
For some employers, the skills gap is serious enough to warrant existential worry. Some see Canada as an option for expansion due to its proximity to the U.S., a shared language, similar government systems and their already-intertwined economies.
“The issue is not so much immigration, per say, but filling the jobs that need to be filled in the U.S. economy,” Lopez said. “If those jobs can’t be filled here, [employers] are going to look elsewhere.”
The travel ban is its own Pandora’s box. While direct impact on employers is limited, it did spread unease among immigrant communities, which could lead to long-term effects on American talent availability. Applications to Canadian universities have substantially increased at the same time that international applications to U.S. universities have decreased. Some speculate that this shift may be due to students’ uncertainty that they will be able to live and work in the U.S. after graduation, Green said, and that could pose problems for U.S. employers five or 10 years from now.
The bottom line
Complex policy like immigration will not have fast or easy fixes. Immigration policy set now could have ramifications for years thanks to international student enrollment numbers and company strategy shifts that will be difficult to change on the whim of any administration.
Real discussions on immigration policy are unlikely until issues with the domestic talent pipeline are also addressed. A lack of proper upskilling, the image gap, bias and even opioids have all eaten away at the availability of American talent in a variety of industries.
In essence, immigration policy will likely remain mired in the culture wars — a polarizing central tenet of the globalization versus insulation debate. Employers, in the meantime, will likely be following the available talent. Will that talent be in Canada? Time will tell.