Canadian tech group spends $100K on billboards to lure anxious tech workers from U.S.

The tech industry in the Waterloo, Ont., region hopes a provocative billboard campaign in Silicon Valley will entice tech workers worried about their U.S. visa or immigration status to consider Canada.

Campaign aimed at tech workers worried by Trump administration work visa ban

The billboards cost $100,000 and are stationed along Highway 101 in Silicon Valley. They aim to entice tech workers worried about their visa or immigration status to consider Canada. (Submitted by Candace Beres)

The technology industry in the Waterloo, Ont., region hopes a provocative billboard campaign in Silicon Valley will entice anxious tech workers to move to Canada.

Communitech, a Kitchener company that advocates for the Canadian tech industry, has spent $100,000 on nine full-size billboards stationed at key points along Highway 101 from San Francisco to Santa Clara in California.  

The billboards ask, "What if my visa gets cancelled?" and "What if I lose my job and health insurance?" against the red and white backdrop of the Canadian flag. Underneath, there's the Communitech website address.

The campaign refers to the recent suspension of some work visas by U.S. President Donald Trump. Among them is the H-1B visa, which is popular among tech workers.

"All these people [who] potentially won't be able to work in America are absolutely top talent from around the world," said Communitech CEO Iain Klugman.

"The message we're trying to deliver to them is to say, 'Hey, you know what, if you can't work or you lose your job, we would like you to think about Canada.'"  

Workers who contact Communitech will get information about Canadian work permits and job boards, including opportunities across the country from Viatec in B.C. to Volta Labs in Nova Scotia, said spokesperson Candace Beres. 

In the United States, H-1B visas are available for up to 85,000 people per year. They're for workers with "highly specialized knowledge" who have a minimum of a bachelor's degree, often in science, technology, engineering, teaching or accounting.

Carolyn Said, who covers business and technology for the San Francisco Chronicle, said the freeze on H-1Bs was upsetting to people in the industry.

"I think people feel that it's a very short sighted move," said Said.

"More than half of the big tech companies here … were started either by immigrants or by children of immigrants, and by cutting off future immigrants we're cutting off the future Googles of tomorrow."

Volatility drives migration: prof

History shows that political volatility often pushes skilled workers to move, according to demographer Michael Haan.

"Highly skilled migrants are extremely mobile, and they often react quite strongly to local political conditions because their bargaining power in other labour markets is so high," said Haan, a professor of sociology at Western University in London, Ont.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, more than 2,000 immigrants came to Canada from Hong Kong in advance of the planned 1997 handover of power from Britain to China, Haan said. Interest in moving to Canada also rose during Brexit, he said. 

He thinks the current freeze on U.S. visas could lead to a similar situation.

"People who are in the United States on those visas, particularly if they're mobile and particularly if they're high skilled, they probably won't put up with it for very long," he said.

Jay Judkowitz moved to Canada in 2017 and is now a permanent resident. He says he's grateful for the opportunity to work in the region. (Submitted by Jay Judkowitz)

Jay Judkowitz, who works for the Kitchener robotics company Clearpath, moved to Canada in 2017 after spending the bulk of his career in Silicon Valley.

Judkowitz said he was drawn by the prospect of a more stable future for his two kids, and now, he's grateful to be here.

Clearpath was founded in Waterloo region in 2009 and now has many employees from the United States, according to chief technology officer Ryan Gariepy.

"We need more experienced people and we need more mentors for all of these new and exciting companies, which are being started in the region," said Gariepy.

Since Communitech's billboard campaign launched on July 27, more than 75 people have signed their names to a list requesting more information about working in Canada. 

The campaign runs until the end of August. 

with files from The Associated Press