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Immigrants easing IT job shortfall

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Tundra Semiconductor Corp. recently conducted an innovative experiment that had nothing to do with making chips.

The Ottawa-based company placed a map of the world on the wall of its games room and asked its 200 employees to identify where they came from.

At last count, 23 nationalities from Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe were represented on the map. While many of Tundra’s staff are Canadian citizens, a good number are new immigrants either recently arrived in Canada or sponsored by Tundra to fill a massive shortfall of skilled workers in the fast-growing information technology sector.

“It’s simply impossible to recruit enough people from within Canada, so we’re hiring them from outside,” said Adam Chowaniec, Tundra’s chief executive. “Many [immigrants] are highly qualified. That’s the attraction in the first place.”

New immigrants are, in fact, becoming a crucial resource, say observers, as Canada’s IT sector faces a labour shortage aggravated by the exodus of 100,000 Canadians a year to the U.S. and a weak university system that is unable to keep up with the demand for skilled workers. According to the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), the $132-billion sector already faces a shortage of 30,000 workers as it grows at a pace six times that of the rest of the economy. It will need another 25,000 workers by 2005.

“The sector is headed for trouble — and soon,” said Dr. Gaylen Duncan, ITAC president, during a recent seminar hosted by the Conference Board of Canada.

“Despite the dot-com bust and the ongoing stock market troubles … the industry continues to face a shortage of talent.” It is a problem not limited to the high-tech sector.

Faced with an ageing population, rapid technological changes and the global competition for talent, the federal government predicts that the shortage of skilled workers — ranging from physicians and nurses to aerospace scientists — will reach one million by 2020.

The challenge, say observers, is how to tap into the influx of immigrants and turn Canada’s brain drain into a brain gain. Being able to harness their potential is crucial, they say, to maintaining Canada’s standard of living as well as boosting innovation and improving the country’s lagging productivity.

“We need to quit bemoaning the brain drain and capitalize on a Canadian immigration policy, which is a competitive advantage to other countries,” said Tim Penner, president of Procter & Gamble Canada.

But while Tundra has been successful to a degree — it still had to buy a small U.S. technology firm last year to access its workforce — statistics show there is a disconnect between desperate employers and a growing number of recent immigrants, particularly visible minorities, who are becoming increasingly impoverished.

According to a study by Edward Harvey, a University of Toronto professor, the average employment income for visible minority immigrants, including blacks, Asians and Latin Americans, dropped from $24,380 in 1991 to $23,298 in 1996. Income for non-visible minority immigrants rose over the same period to $31,194.

More striking, the average percentage of visible minority immigrants below the low-income cut-off rose to 34.3% from 25.1% over the same period. The surge was more dramatic in Ontario, which receives the bulk of new immigrants; the percentage of visible minorities below the cut-off rose from 20.9% to 32.5%.

Non-visible minority immigrants are also getting poorer. The percentage below the low-income cut-off rose to 17.8% from 14.4% nationwide. “What is the cost of all this to the Canadian economy? Billions and billions of dollars lost in the underutilization of people,” said Dr. Harvey. “Can we afford these kinds of losses? Clearly not. Our competitive future is very much contingent on knowledge industries.”

Much of the loss can be attributed to the failure to recognize immigrants’ skills and educational levels, says Dr. Michael Bloom, director of education and learning for the Conference Board of Canada. He calculates between $4.1-billion to $5.9-billion in annual income could be gained if skills were recognized.

To overcome the problem, Dr. Bloom suggests establishing a national standards and recognition system. By having their credentials certified, 540,000 Canadians, including 340,000 immigrants, would stand to benefit with average annual wage gains of $8,000 to $12,000, he says.

“We are going to need to find a way to engage immigrants more productively or else the demographic reality is we’re going to have a shocking impact on our living standards,” said Dr. Bloom.

Nonetheless, the growing need comes at a time when the federal government is making it more difficult for skilled immigrants to enter the country. Industry leaders say proposed changes to Canada’s immigration policy, aimed at sifting skilled workers from the unskilled, would actually disqualify an Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate from getting a job in Canada.

“It’s mind-boggling that a government bureaucrat is putting together a policy that excludes exactly the kind of people we need,” says Mr. Chowaniec at Tundra.

Instead, Mr. Chowaniec proposes the federal government focus on promoting Canada as a technologically innovative country — rather than emphasizing the traditional sectors of oil, gas and tourism — in order to attract more high tech workers.