British Columbia

B.C. tech firms aim to lure workers as looming Trump visa restrictions stoke fear

Fears are growing in the tech sector over U.S. plans to restrict H1-B visas for highly skilled foreign workers. However, some Canadian companies hope a new two-week process for permits here will attract high-tech talent.

Companies say an increasing number of tech workers are interested in coming to Canada

An employee at B.C. tech firm Mobify. The company is looking to take advantage of worldwide skilled employees who may be looking north of the border for work. (CBC)

Some B.C. tech companies hope to take advantage of the cloud of fear over possible changes to U.S. visas for skilled foreign workers as they await Canada's new streamlined process for permits to come into effect.

The virtual world is bracing for a dose of cold reality as the U.S. moves to tighten policies for H1-B visas, which allow highly skilled workers to live and be employed in high tech hubs like California's Silicon Valley and Bellevue in Washington state.

Heads of some tech companies say the solution for people nervous about working for an American company lies in Vancouver.

"This uncertainty is really dialing down enthusiasm, especially for travel to the U.S. for long-term career moves. We're seeing that change slowly happen," said Igor Fatelski, CEO of Mobify, a tech company specializing in apps for retailers.

Worldwide interest

Highly specialized tech workers from outside the U.S. typically use H1-B visas to work for American companies. 

But U.S. President Donald Trump recently announced the government plans to suspend expedited applications for those visas. 

Fatelski said the change, along with uncertainty stemming from Trump's revised travel ban, is generating more interest in Canadian companies, including his.

'This uncertainty is really dialing down enthusiasm,' Igor Fatelski, CEO of Mobify, a growing tech company specializing in apps for retailers, says of the looming U.S. visa restrictions. (CBC)

"We're seeing more and more interest from around the world from potential employees that want to work in Canada because they're not certain what's going to happen in the U.S."

Fatelski immigrated to Canada from Russia when he was 15. Now, he employs more than 100 people — and says he will need more.

"There's a certain gap in talent and sometimes there's not enough engineers or executives to hire for all of the companies in town," he said.

Silicon Valley protest

Tensions are rising in the high-tech industry south of the border, where workers from other countries are facing obstacles.  

Hundreds of protesters in Silicon Valley in Palo Alto, Calif., rallied on Tuesday against the U.S. government's looming policies like the visa application change.

Some Canadian tech companies are spotting a chance to lure in-demand workers who feel uncomfortable about their future in the United States.

The Canadian government recognizes the same opportunity. 

Protesters in California expressed opposition to recent policies changes proposed by U.S. President Donald Trump. (CBC)

'Game changer'

At the B.C. tech summit, Navdeep Bains, Canada's minister of innovation, said the government will act quickly to fast track work permits to attract highly skilled talent from other countries.

"We're taking the processing time, which takes months, and reducing it to two weeks for immigration processing for individuals [who] need to come here to help companies grow and scale up," Bains said. 

"So this is a big deal. It's a game changer."

That change will happen through the Global Talent Stream, a new program under the federal government's temporary foreign worker program.  It's scheduled to begin on June 12, 2017.

U.S. companies are taking notice and a Canadian firm, True North, is offering to help them set up shop. 

"What we suggest is that they think about moving their operations, or at least a chunk of their operations, to Vancouver, set up a Canadian subsidiary," said the company's founder, Michael Tippett. 

"And that subsidiary would be able to house and accommodate those employees." 

Industry experts says while the future is unclear for the tech sector in the U.S., it's clear high tech in B.C. is gearing up to take advantage.