COLUMN

New concerns about the brain drain

A qualified consultant can now go to the U.S. border with a birth certificate, a job offer, and get in, thanks to the free trade deal

DIANE FRANCIS February 26 1990
COLUMN

New concerns about the brain drain

A qualified consultant can now go to the U.S. border with a birth certificate, a job offer, and get in, thanks to the free trade deal

DIANE FRANCIS February 26 1990

James Kelly, director of Career Planning and Placement at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., recently received a fax message, as did other Canadian universities, from the Toronto suburb of Markham, Ont. It was a want ad from Toshiba Corp.’s Canadian subsidary, the world-beating electronics conglomerate, offering three-to-five-year contracts in Tokyo for 15 university graduates. No experience and no Japanese language skills were required. Computer science and engineering graduates only need apply. Said Kelly: “This has never happened before.”

On the one hand, it may signal the start of a renewed brain drain out of Canada, always a concern to a country like ours where educational choices don’t always match the highly specialized, commodity-based opportunities available. It may also mean that there is trouble in Japan, where the world’s industrial paradise faces serious manpower shortages. After all, who would want to move to a country that employs subway stuffers?

Kelly says that the Japanese are not the only foreigners seeking Canadian university graduates, and he worries about a renewed brain drain. Said Kelly: “We’ve been approached by companies in London, Paris and many places in the United States, especially with the new immigration rules that came with the Free Trade Agreement (FTA). I’m glad for the opportunities for these students, but I have concerns.”

Chapter 15 of the FTA allows almost any professional with a bachelor’s degree, and a job offer, to enter the United States immediately on an extended work permit. Although that is encouraging many to move, another part of the FTA makes it unnecessary for others to relocate because it allows Canadian-based management consultants to service clients in the United States without setting up shop there and having to pay U.S. corporate taxes.

The Vietnam War reversed the flow of immigration from north to south. But even before that, a flood of immigrants to Canada from war-torn Europe more than replenished those educated Canadians who went south to earn higher wages, to pursue a specialized career or for climatic reasons. Current figures show that about 45,000 people emigrate from Canada every year, while roughly three times as many immigrate here, mostly from Third World countries and sponsored by Canadian residents.

Manpower problems have always dogged Canada. To help solve them, in 1927 prominent Canadian industrialists founded the Technical Service Council, a nonprofit operation now supported by over 450 member corporations. It matches Canadians with Canadian-based employers and has placed 46,000 professionals, mostly in the manufacturing, mining and consulting areas. “I don’t think we have a significant brain drain now,” said council president Neil Macdougall, “but we are very vulnerable because the Americans have always found it convenient to beat the bushes here.” He added: “It is more economical for them than recruiting overseas. The transition is less painful and it costs less. So anytime there are severe shortages, they come here.”

The council keeps records of all engineers emigrating to the United States as a percentage of the number of graduate engineers in a given year. The flow is volatile, to say the least. Between 1951 and 1966, the proportion of engineers who emigrated varied between 11 per cent in 1951 and the 1957 peak of 65 per cent, when 1,194 engineers went south. Said Macdougall: “Vietnam kept people here, but after the war, between 1982 and 1988, the number of those leaving has never been higher than seven per cent.” He added: “We also have engineers immigrate here, and from 1978 to 1988 that figure has ranged from 800 to 2,500. There are roughly 130,000 engineers in Canada.”

A drain is not in the cards now that the U.S. economy has slowed somewhat, along with Canada’s. Still, Macdougall says that Canadians always experience a southward pull. He added: “There’s always a certain amount, given the warmer climate, lower cost of living, greener-pastures syndrome, and opportunities to work with world-class names or to work in specialties which don’t exist here or are limited. A radio astronomer has so few job prospects in Canada that the U.S. is exceedingly tempting.”

Apart from the council’s figures on engineers, which are imprecise and incomplete, indications of a drain are strictly anecdotal. But one dramatic example involves a Toronto computer placement company, Xycorp Inc., whose owner was recently approached by a California counterpart because of free trade. Said Xycorp president Ronald Ellingson: “A while ago, a firm sent up a team of people and interviewed persons in the computer business interested in living in southern California, but didn’t hire more because it took six months to go through the visa hassles.” Now, he added, “a qualified consultant can go to the border with a birth certificate, a job offer, $50 in his pocket and get in, compliments of free trade.”

The same California firm plans to send recruiters to Canada next month to interview Canadian candidates for 15 permanent jobs, and will do so every quarter, said Ellingson, adding, “It’s a helluva market for me if I wanted to go after it.” Not surprisingly, California is the carrot, and recruiters find it almost impossible to entice Canadians to live in cities like Chicago or New York City.

In the meantime, both Ellingson and Macdougall say that they are finding it difficult to get Canadians to move within Canada. Quebec’s language laws are a major drawback, as are Toronto’s excessive housing prices. Such frontier towns as Fort McMurray, Alta., are spurned, as are other places dependent on the West’s boom-or-bust oil sector. “Placing people in the United States could be a great business if I wanted to pursue it,” said Ellingson, a native of Saskatchewan, whose biggest export has always been people. “But frankly, it bothers me a bit as a Canadian. I’m a nationalist and I like to see our skilled people stay at home.” But as the demand for skilled professionals grows around the world, Canada could see some of its best talent leave.