Silicon Valley companies have been angst-ridden since President Donald Trump signed an executive order in mid-April calling for the reform of the H-1B visa program – the one that allows tech companies (and businesses in other industries) to recruit temporary foreign workers for jobs that can’t be filled by Americans.
In Trump’s move to restrict immigration, Michael Tippett, CEO of True North Ventures in Vancouver, saw an opportunity for Canada and the U.S.-based companies that viewed potential reforms as catastrophic for their operations.
As many as 30 per cent of the workers at the region’s tech companies are employed on H-1B visa, said Tippett. In the San Francisco Bay area, he said, more than 40 percent of the founders of tech companies are from somewhere outside of the U.S.
Tippett started talking to those companies about moving some of their operations north of the border to insulate them against the changes that are coming, but still haven’t been finalized.
“The fear is that, with the new administration and political environment that’s emerging, people are starting to see immigration, and more foreign workers as a liability not an asset,” said Tippett in a recent interview.
“That’s given rise to policies that are not necessarily being driven by the tech sector, restrictions around those types of visas, extended processing times for people coming in under those programs, and just a level of uncertainty that, in and of itself, regardless of what the eventual policies are, is causing people to think strategically about how they staff up and maintain operations.”
And True North is having some early success with companies like San Francisco-based Omni Inc., which opened a Vancouver office because the two owners from India believed the immigration process would be easier for them and the employees they may need to recruit from abroad.
Stephen Lund, CEO of Opportunities New Brunswick (ONB), was in Vancouver last month. He took notice of the work Tippett was doing and saw the potential for using them to help recruit new companies to New Brunswick.
“I saw [Tippett] on the national news, he was in [big papers like The Washington Post] talking about what they’re doing,” said Lund in a recent interview. “We need to be part of that, we’re trying to be aggressive here.”
ONB officials met with Tippett and formed a strategic partnership in June to undertake the same kinds of recruitment efforts in New Brunswick.
“There’s opportunity, we believe, for companies in the U.S., particularly Silicon Valley, to look at having a presence in places like Vancouver or New Brunswick,” said Lund.
Of course, Vancouver is a larger urban centre on the same coast as Silicon Valley, but Lund said companies can still be recruited to come here.
There are already large U.S. tech businesses that have operations in New Brunswick – Salesforce, RevJet and most recently, Cardinal Path – that understand the “value proposition” of locating in New Brunswick, said Lund.
“[These companies] need good people,” he said. “If we say we can find you good people at a fraction of the cost, why wouldn’t you listen. We can present a solid business case, and in most cases we’re successful winning [them over].”
Lund said True North, with its deep connections in Silicon Valley, can help ONB raise New Brunswick’s profile there.
“Our challenge is awareness,” said Lund. “How do companies in Silicon Valley even know about New Brunswick. This is what’s great about True North. We partnering with [them] to create more awareness for New Brunswick in Silicon Valley.”
And just as the U.S. is threatening to close its doors to immigrant workers, Atlantic Canada is opening its own doors wider. In March, the federal and provincial governments launched the Atlantic Immigration Pilot, which is designed to attract skilled immigrants to address shortages in the labour market.
Tippett said those efforts to increase immigration, combined with its geographic location, make it possible to lure more companies to the province.
“ONB has positioned New Brunswick as North America’s nearshore jurisdiction,” said Tippett. “As a central point between Europe and the Americas, and with companies like Xerox, IBM, Salesforce, and ExxonMobil already having located strategic nearshore operations in New Brunswick, it made perfect sense to partner with ONB given our particular service offering.”
New Brunswick can ease its immigration rules. It can pitch its low-cost environment and strategic location. But can it attract the kind of workforce that’s used to living and working in the large urban centres of Southern California, and elsewhere in the U.S.?
Tippett is just beginning his work here, but he says there’s a growing movement of tech workers dissatisfied with big cities that may embrace life in New Brunswick.
“The honest answer is we’ll have to wait and see,” said Tippett. “People in the tech sector do like the big urban centres. But there are a lot of people moving out of San Francisco to places like Portland (Oregon) and other smaller metropolitan centres because a lot of the [large cities] are becoming outrageously expensive.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘what’s the point of living in a big city if you can’t enjoy yourself.’ And when you reach a critical mass of those types of people, they start moving to more peripheral or smaller places.”
Lund is also in “wait and see” mode because the True North partnership is in its early stages. But he said the province needs to aggressively pursue opportunities like this to build relationships with companies in the U.S. and abroad.
“We have to create linkages across the world,” said Lund. “We don’t have a call centre for [outside] companies that call and say they want to set up here or people that want to move here. It just doesn’t exist. We have to be so much more aggressive these days to reach out to companies, but also reach out to people that might want to come here.
“We need more immigration. We need more anchor companies, and so it’s all a matter of being really aggressive.”