Historically, Canadians are known as hewers of wood and drawers of water — we produce the resources that other countries turn into something valuable.Likewise, the “brain drain,” the trend over the past 30 years of Canadians making their way down to the U.S., is a present-day manifestation of this Canadian cultural adage.
“In a way we’re producing great engineers, great computer science people, great accountants and great managers. And the rest of the world is coming and shopping on our doorstep, picking up our resources and putting them to work elsewhere to realize this kind of profit,” said Iain Klugman, president of Communitech Technology Association. Founded in 1997, Communitech is an association of 450 Waterloo, Ont.-based tech companies whose aim is to get Canadian expatriates to move back north.
“As a nation we started paying attention to the fact that this was something that was an issue for us,” said Klugman. “There were more University of Waterloo grads at Microsoft than from any other university.”
In 1999-2000, the University of Waterloo (UW) reported its best year in terms of employers from the U.S. coming to hire IT students, with 175 to 200 students hired in that year. Since then, that number dropped to as low as 100 and recently crept back up to 150, said Olaf Naese, spokesperson for the southwestern Ontario university. Whereas half a dozen of the large U.S. tech firms, including Microsoft, used to take 40 students each, those same companies are now taking a handful of students.
WE WANT YOU
“Things are slowly looking up here,” said Naese. “The Canadian economy is pretty strong. A lot of Canadian companies are going to the States to recruit.”
Both Naese and Klugman agree that the brain drain trend in the high tech sector has been slowly reversing since the tech market collapsed several years ago.
“Probably right now I wouldn’t say we have a major brain drain,” said Naese. “The effects of the dot-com crash and Nortel Networks’ problems have caused us not to be as sought after by U.S. companies as used to be the case.”
On a positive note, Klugman said there are many more opportunities in Canada than there were in the past. However, he said certain brands in the talent space remain difficult to compete with.
“If you’re graduating in banking then you want to go to Wall Street. If you’re interested in technology and software you want to go work in Silicon Valley.”
While the computer industry has changed immensely in the last couple of decades, the Silicon Valley route was the only option for Java programming language creator James Gosling. Armed with a Bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Calgary, Gosling, now vice-president and fellow at Sun Microsystems Inc., said most of the good grad schools in 1977 were in the U.S.
After graduating from Pittsburgh, Pa.-based Carnegie-Mellon University in 1983 with a PhD in Computer Science, Gosling said there weren’t any opportunities for him to do what he wanted to in Canada.
“I only had a few possibilities — generic work for a bank, work for an oil company, or work for the (University of Calgary),” said Gosling, adding that none of these options appealed to him. “I wanted to build high-end computer systems. That led me to Silicon Valley.”
To some degree, Naese said students today looking for specific work experience that they can’t find in Canada end up going to the U.S. University of Waterloo has a campus job in which computer science and computer engineering students can do a specific kind of programming work.
“They could only do that kind of programming in Redmond or here on campus,” he said. “If that’s still true today, there aren’t many companies that offer the kinds of programming these students are looking for.”
TOUGH ROOTS TO PULL
With the advent of the Internet in the last decade, Gosling said it has become easier for software developers to run their business from any location.
“Twenty years ago you had to be physically close to engineers and engineers had to be physically close to their employers,” said Gosling. “If you wanted to sell a piece of software you had to physically deliver it. These days, none of that is true.
“If I had of come into this business now, I’d still be in Calgary.”
While Gosling regularly visits his mother, brother and sister in Calgary, he said it would be difficult to uproot his family from their lives.
“My wife and I have this discussion of moving to Canada all the time,” said Gosling. “After the last election it was close. Once you’ve got family, kids and school and your kids have friends, moving becomes a very difficult thing.”
In terms of American politics, Klugman said the last election helped with Communitech’s recruiting efforts such as its sponsorship of this year’s Canada Day picnic in Silicon Valley, an annual event Canadians in Silicon Valley and Digital Moose Lounge, two networking groups.
“George Bush has helped with some of our recruiting efforts . . . There are people who are less comfortable with him and his leadership in terms of where the White House has gone from where it was with (former president Bill) Clinton,” said Klugman.
As part of its efforts, which include e-mail tech updates of what’s happening in the Waterloo region, Communitech has identified the key locations in the U.S. — Silicon Valley, Dallas and Boston — where there are large concentrations of expatriate Canadians. Klugman estimates there’s somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 jobs that the Waterloo region is going to need to fill in the next 12 months.
“The tech sector is just booming,” he said. “Everyone is growing right now. That’s what’s really created the issue for us.”