The Americans Are Coming
By: Alan Davis
For Some Companies, the Brain Drain is not a Myth
Imagine this cry from a lookout standing at a lonely outpost on the North bank of the St. Lawrence River, peering into the dawn mist. The year is 1775, and the country is experiencing raiding parties by the American army.
Fast forward to the year 2000, and the Americans are still sending raiding parties across the border, except this time it=s not the American Army, it’s American big business, and their goal is not territory – it’s brainpower.
You only have to look at the increasing number of career advertisements appearing in Canadian newspapers to see that more and more American companies are marauding North of the border, looking for Canadians to work in the U.S. (Under Free Trade, the mobility issue has become a lot easier.) Most of the advertisements are for jobs in the Silicon Valley – mostly for Software Engineers and other designers of hi-tech products in computers and communications. Companies in other locations, from the Rockies to New England, are also looking. Terance Matthews, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer of Newbridge Networks in Kanata, estimates that Canada could lose up to 7,000 C++ programmers to the U.S. this year alone.
What is even more alarming is that some American Companies, including the mighty Microsoft, are recruiting Software Designers straight out of Canadian universities. According to Don McCreesh, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Nortel, Microsoft has become the number one destination for Computer Science graduates from the University of Waterloo (generally regarded as one of, if not the, top Canadian school in this field). Until recently, this position was held by Nortel, or its research partner, Bell Northern Research.
The worrying aspect of this phenomenon is that the trend is likely to increase. We live in revolutionary times, with fading borders. The Internet has altered our lives irrevocably, and we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. The very nature of work versus job has changed and will continue to do so. Technology has transformed the way we communicate with each other. Emerging technologies will continue to revolutionize the way we live and work, and the pace of this revolution is accelerating at warp speed.
Neither is the revolution restricted to the hi-tech sector. The impact of technology is growing in almost every business.
The worldwide demand for technical expertise has affected the U.S. as well. According to June Dean, Recruiting Manager at Amdahl in Sunnyvale, California, there are typically 20,000 to 25,000 unfilled positions at any one time in Silicon Valley alone.
On the other end of the spectrum, one of Canada’s major problems and preoccupations is unemployment – specifically youth unemployment. The baby boom has turned to a baby bust. University enrollment has started to decline and the percentage of students entering into careers in Science & Engineering has not changed significantly. In addition, we are witnessing a mood of unemployability in our youth. This is happening at the same time as the demand for knowledge-based graduates has never been higher – and is on the increase. Already in Canada, according to the Globe & Mail, about 4% of jobs in Canada’s software industry are vacant and tend to remain vacant for months. That translates to about 7,000 high-paying jobs that technology companies can’t fill. Something in the order of 50% of companies report unfilled vacancies. Many Canadian companies are recruiting overseas now for the critical skills required to ensure their future competitiveness.
So what can we do to start to mitigate this ridiculous situation – high demand on the one hand, and high unemployment on the other? One thing is for sure: if we do nothing, we will rapidly lose any competitive edge we have in the global marketplace, and sooner or later we will lose our ability to be competitive at all.
We have already established that, as a country, Canada cannot compete in the global economy with semi-skilled manufacturing jobs. Where we can compete is in knowledge-based industries where growth will result from a transfer of knowledge from the few to the many.
Some excellent initiatives have already begun, including Career Edge (originally known as First Jobs), and the Consortium for Software Engineering Research. These initiatives have brought Industry, Academia and Government together to address at least part of the unemployment problem – but they are both aimed at the post-secondary level, with the objective of getting graduating students gainfully employed.
But surely the root cause of the problem is that knowledge-based careers are not attracting a sufficient number of students from our high schools. The solution therefore is obviously to condition students early on in their school years for the workplace of the future. Hi-tech careers are often intimidating; they need to be De-mystified and made user-friendly. As well, if students learn the correlation between knowledge and work, and the difference between a career and a job, more of them will opt for the often-perceived more difficult path into science and technology careers. Once they know that the knowledge they are acquiring will be the same knowledge that employers are looking for, more and more of them will jump onto the knowledge bandwagon.
At a recent career presentation at a local high school, I was dismayed by the lack of awareness – by students and teachers alike – of what it takes to be employable. A ton of information is available to get this message across, but it must be tackled at the national level, and in a massive coordinated and concerted effort, to make a real difference to our kids. Industry is the biggest stakeholder in this scenario, and it needs to start looking at recruitment as a long-term, rather than a short-term, issue. The question, though, is: who is going to take the lead?
Alan Davis is founder and President of Alan Davis & Associates Inc., 450-458-3535 www.alandavis.com