A Shortage In Tech Workers Drives Some U.S. Companies To Canada

Jan 25, 2020
Originally published on January 25, 2020 1:43 pm
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Trump administration's visa limits restrictions have made it harder to hire high-skilled workers from around the world. That's created an opportunity for other countries, like Canada, which has become a magnet for global talent. To think they'll snag BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music. And some U.S. companies are looking north of the border to fill open jobs, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: More than a dozen hiring managers from tech startups squeeze into a private dining room at Del Posto, a high-end New York restaurant.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASSES CLINKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Cheers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Cheers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Cheers.

ROSE: One of them is Susan Riskin, the head of human resources at Bitly, which you may have heard of. It's well known for making Web addresses shorter.

SUSAN RISKIN: We doubled the size of our technology team in the last year, and we feel like we have exhausted New York and Denver. And now it's like we're trying to figure out where to go next, what we need do.

ROSE: None of the hiring managers at this table are finding enough qualified people to fill all of their open jobs. They came tonight for the New York strip steak and Italian wine, but also to hear a pitch from this guy.

IRFHAN RAWJI: If you'd rather fill a job than go without, call us. We'll open a virtual subsidiary for you in Canada. You get access to the world.

ROSE: Irfhan Rawji is the founder of a Canadian company called MobSquad. Here's his pitch. Say your firm wants to hire an international tech worker but their visa application is rejected or the application process is dragging on for months. So Rawji says hire them to work for you remotely from Canada.

RAWJI: The flights are an hour and a half to two hours. It's the same business culture. And we try to match or beat the total cost for you here.

ROSE: Not that long ago, U.S. tech companies relied on a steady stream of engineers and software developers from China and India and elsewhere. Meagan Soszynski is the head of HR for an advertising app called Yieldmo. Over dessert, Soszynski says getting what's known as an H-1B visa for those high-skilled workers was often slow and expensive, but at least it was predictable.

MEAGAN SOSZYNSKI: You pretty much always got the outcome that you wanted.

ROSE: Soszynski says that's not the case anymore.

SOSZYNSKI: In the last year, I would say every one of my H-1B cases had been met with some sort of delay.

ROSE: Under the Trump administration, H-1B visas have been harder to come by. The rejection rate for new applicants has tripled in recent years to nearly 25%. Immigration authorities say they're trying to ensure companies follow the rules. Employers are required to show that hiring a foreign worker will not hurt Americans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEN CUCCINELLI: You know, I have a high regard, as does the president, for protecting U.S. workers.

ROSE: Here's Ken Cuccinelli last year when he was the acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services talking about the need to crack down on fraud and abuse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CUCCINELLI: The H-1B program has been controversial in this regard. And it is concerning.

ROSE: But U.S. immigration policy is having unintended consequences in Canada. That country has made it easier for new tech workers to immigrate there. And its tech sector is booming. Now big U.S. tech firms are following global tech workers north of the border. Google, Microsoft, Intel and Uber have either opened or announced plans for new offices in Canada.

I met Yung Wu at the MaRS Discovery District, the technology hub he runs in Toronto.

YUNG WU: Toronto's now the fastest growing tech city in North America.

ROSE: Wu says the Toronto tech industry has been growing for a while, but the U.S. immigration crackdown accelerated that growth.

WU: Look; every time Trump tweets, we get another sort of injection, which is all good from my perspective. Companies are locating here because they can get access to foreign talent faster.

ROSE: Wu says hiring the right people at the right time can be the difference between a company that succeeds and one that doesn't. Canada is betting on it.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Toronto.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJ MITSU THE BEATS' "SLIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.