This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.
Some might look at Noubar Afeyan’s career as a frustrating example of a talented Canadian scientist who got away. The chairman and co-founder of Boston-based Moderna, one of the leading COVID-19 vaccine makers, was born in Lebanon, immigrated to Canada with his family in the 1970s and did his undergraduate studies at McGill University.
Then we lost him. Afeyan left to get his PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, eventually becoming a star scientist and entrepreneur. He has founded several successful U.S. biotech startups and registered more than 100 patents.
The good news is that Canada’s technology landscape has dramatically changed in the past three-plus decades.
Yes, like Afeyan, many Canadians are still drawn south by the reputations of U.S. colleges and tech giants. But the evidence suggests Canada has largely reversed its brain drain. This country’s fast-growing technology sector is more than holding its own in the global race for talent, even after the deep economic shock of the pandemic, according to an analysis of employment data contained in a new report for the Innovation Economy Council.
Despite the terrible toll of the pandemic, Canada has become more competitive because there are more opportunities here than ever for people to learn, to build companies and to thrive. And that’s making the market for technology jobs remarkably resilient.
Indeed, there are nearly 100,000 more jobs now in so-called STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and math — in this country than there were before the pandemic. There is still a gaping hole in Canada’s job market, but not for these people. For the most part, Canadian startups and technology companies absorbed the shock, moved to remote work and in some cases have expanded aggressively.
The resilience of tech employment in these uncertain times is a testament to the Canadian sector’s core strengths — an immigration system that welcomes talented foreigners, a growing crop of promising homegrown STEM graduates and a thriving ecosystem of companies.
It’s a tale of two economies, of course. While there was a net gain of 98,500 STEM jobs, Canada had 431,000 fewer non-STEM jobs in October than it had in February, in sectors such as retail, tourism and airlines.
And there is a cautionary note about the STEM jobs. The number of job postings for these workers is down roughly 50 per cent since February, according to an analysis of data from the Labour Market Information Council. This suggests that companies are still hiring, but perhaps not as enthusiastically as they were before the pandemic.
Another consequence of COVID-19 is that it has accelerated the shift to distributed work forces in the tech industry — teams of employees scattered across different cities and countries. Companies have learned that it’s no longer essential to bring people to them. They can just as easily go where the talent is.
Tech giants — including Google, Facebook and Amazon — have set up large Canadian research and development operations in recent years. A growing number of foreign startups are doing the same. They are moving here to tap our plentiful and affordable supply of programmers, engineers, artificial-intelligence experts and scientists.
Talent flows both ways. Thousands of Canadians continue to pursue careers and education in the U.S. despite four years of anti-immigration rhetoric by outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump. Mr. Trump threatened to tighten H-1B visas, but it turns out Canadian STEM workers are still successfully applying for them — more Canadians were issued H-1Bs in 2019 than in 2018.
Still, that exodus is significantly smaller than the inflow of foreign students, workers and entrepreneurs. Most of our departing STEM workers go to the United States: IEC research shows that more than 10,000 Canadians went south in 2019 with H-1B visas and green cards. But Canada gained nearly 23,000 global STEM workers through permanent residency and temporary foreign worker visas that year.
These newcomers are more likely than Canadians born here to work and study in STEM disciplines. It’s proof that Canada is a place where talented foreigners want to live, work and start companies.
There is also some evidence that the combination of U.S. political strife and China’s democracy crackdown in Hong Kong may be drawing Canadian expats home. As many as 300,000 of the roughly three million Canadian passport holders living outside the country may have returned home since COVID-19 hit, many for good.
But without opportunity, none of that would happen.
Today, it’s tempting to imagine a different a different life story for Moderna’s Noubar Afeyan. Instead of leaving, he stays in Montreal and goes on to found a biotech company that develops a Canadian-made COVID-19 vaccine that the rest of the world desperately wants. His company is worth more than $60-billion and employs thousands of Canadian scientists.
The resilience of Canada’s STEM work force through the pandemic suggests this kind of homegrown-hero story is not so far-fetched.
Canadians will always leave to find their way in the world. This week’s sale of highly touted Montreal startup Element AI to a California software company marked an unfortunate loss of both intellectual property and talent. Canada isn’t the world’s biggest pond and we’ll never retain all of our companies and people. But we’ve shown that we can win the war for talent.
The Trump presidency peddled its anti-immigration messaging, eroding the false narrative that the best and brightest were always welcome in America. Canada countered with policies and public-relations efforts aimed at attracting talent, such as the highly successful Global Talent Stream program and Communitech’s “We Want You” campaign. It has worked.
But the talent war isn’t over. The key is to continue to create — and promote — opportunities and incentives for the best and brightest here in Canada. If we’ve learned anything from the past few years, it’s that narratives matter. And Canada has a good story to tell.
Barrie McKenna is a former Globe and Mail columnist and author of the Innovation Economy Council’s new white paper, Magnetic North: How Canada Holds its Own in the Global Race for Innovation Talent.