On the heels of U.S. President Donald Trump’s promise to “hire American”, Ottawa’s economic development arm hopes to convince more tech companies headquartered in the U.S. to establish design centres and branch operations in the capital.
Trump announced on Tuesday his plans to change the way high-skill work visas, known as H1-Bs, are given out.
The administration wants to rework the system to ensure that they are only “given to the most skilled and highest paid applicant, and they should never, ever be used to replace American workers,” Trump said at an event in Wisconsin.
Currently, the U.S. government awards 65,000 H1-B work visas every year to foreigners, many with specialties in science, technology, engineering and mathematics work in the technology industry.
Through a random lottery system, many of those visas go to skilled workers from India and China.
But hundreds of Canadians also work in tech centres including Silicon Valley, California and Seattle, Washington on both the H1-B as well as TN (Treaty NAFTA) work visas.
Tech companies look abroad for talent
If fewer visas are handed out, that presents an opportunity for branch operations outside the United States to be a home to those workers. Blair Patacairk, managing director of investment and trade at Invest Ottawa, said his team is putting together what they call “bid books” to entice companies to expand to the nation’s capital.
Already, firms including Amazon, Apple, Google and most recently Ford have established operations in Ottawa to take advantage of the technology talent in this city.
“A lot of rigour and time is spent on due diligence on why they should be growing somewhere else outside the United States and I’d say that Ottawa punches above its weight in terms of the talent skill that’s here, the high-growth environment, the technology ecosystem [and] research labs,” said Patacairk.
While he can’t say exactly which firms Ottawa is courting, Patacairk said they’re “actively pursuing” more American companies in the current political climate.
“I’d love to tell you who they are, but I’m in non-disclosure. But we definitely have some companies that are very interested in Ottawa and we look forward to doing business with them,” he said.
Jabil, a U.S. headquartered firm, is now running an optical business unit out of a former Nortel building in Kanata and a seasoned Ottawa technology executive, Cyril McKelvie, has been hired to run the Canadian operation — a branch that’s growing.
Ottawa ready to ‘take advantage’
“For sure Ottawa is a key footprint from the point of view of finding people and also key customers,” said McKelvie. “If there’s any kind of momentum as a result of policy change in the U.S., I’d expect we’d take advantage of that.”
While the Trump administration is focusing on hiring from within, Canadian tech companies have found success lobbying the federal government here to ease the immigration process when it comes to attracting highly skilled workers from abroad.
In the March federal budget, the government promised an additional $7.8 million over two years to implement a new Global Talent Stream.
McKelvie said his Florida headquartered company also has a division in China, so easing the flow of engineers between Jabil’s operations in China and Canada will be welcome.
“We have a constant stream of engineering resources between our locations,” said McKelvie. “The ability to get them here on visas and making that process as streamlined as possible is a huge advantage to us.”