Opinion: Will Justin’s Liberals deliver for the local tech sector? Dale offers advice to Trudeau government

A new government on Parliament Hill is a time for new ideas. The recent federal election certainly signalled that Canadians want real change and a more positive future.

By Jeffrey Dale

For the most part, businesses look to government to help make it as easy as possible for them to conduct their affairs and provide them with a competitive advantage when they venture into international markets. So what does Ottawa’s tech sector want from the new Liberal regime?

Over the past 15 years, the government has invested significantly in programs to help tech startups, including initiatives such as the Venture Capital Action Plan, the Industrial Research Assistance Program, the Canadian Technology Accelerators and the Canada Accelerator and Incubator Program.

What tech CEOs are now looking for is encouragement and assistance to support their growth.  We have created some great companies in Canada, but now they need help to scale into global leaders.

But what specifically do tech firms have on their wish list? This is not an easy question to answer.

A few months ago, I was at a meeting with some senior deputy ministers and a number of tech CEOs. These chief executives were very excited about their businesses, which they all want to grow and be successful on a global scale. They also talked about some of the challenges they are facing, and the deputy ministers discussed some of the new federal programs and policies that have been implemented to help them.  

These CEOs had very legitimate concerns. However, business and government often speak a different language, and it was difficult for the executives to articulate their concerns in a way the deputy ministers could understand and address. Business issues don’t translate easily into policy solutions, and policy solutions don’t always address the issues they were meant to.

As an example, a CEO at the meeting said his HR department was having a hard time hiring foreigners to come work for his company in Canada. The businesspeople said federal bureaucracy was too time-consuming, causing them to lose candidates before the government gave its approval.

Meanwhile, the deputy ministers touted the new fast-track immigration process that has been implemented to allow people with needed skills to immigrate to Canada. The businesspeople asked how that would help them; they were offering people a job, not asking them to become Canadian citizens. What they needed was fast approval for a work visa.  

At the heart of the issue is the updated Temporary Foreign Worker Program. The initiative was revamped last year to stop big corporations such as Tim Hortons and Royal Bank from bringing in foreign workers to do jobs that Canadians could be doing. TFWP and the Labour Market Impact Assessment process are adding a huge layer of red tape for all companies looking to hire foreign nationals to work in Canada. As a result, many companies are not able to hire the talent they need to support their business plans.

This is just one example of a situation in which the tech sector and government aren’t on the same page when it comes to creating an environment for growth and prosperity. So what do these businesses really need from the federal government?

After discussions with tech leaders in Ottawa and across Canada, these are the top suggestions I’ve heard:

1. Create a Canadian national brand on innovation

2. Help our companies expand internationally

3. Attract and retain the best and brightest talent in Canada

The federal government is encouraging Canadian businesses to go global. What we need is the development of a national brand for Canada that emphasizes the innovation characteristics in our political, economic, educational and cultural strengths.

A national brand can dramatically influence our ability to attract investment capital, help support exports, attract a talented and creative workforce and boost our cultural, economic and political influence around the world.  

A national brand is not a slogan. It is the image a country has of itself and how it wants to project itself to the world. Germany’s brand is based on “engineering,” Italy is about “fashion” and France is about “culture.”

Shopify, for example, recognizes that its high customer satisfaction levels can be directly attributed to being a Canadian company. Its clients regularly compliment Shopify staff on their professionalism, friendliness and patience.

Ottawa’s own Halogen Software, meanwhile, stores all of its customers’ information in Canadian data centres because Canada is viewed as the “Switzerland of data,” providing privacy, confidentiality and security.

So why not build a national brand based on these unique advantages?

The government also must do more to help companies enter foreign markets. The Global Markets Action Plan was launched two years ago, but most businesses still do not fully understand what is available under the plan.

A large number of companies have told me they just want to know how Canada’s international trade agreements can help give them a competitive advantage when doing business in world markets. Technology businesses need the “Coles Notes” version customized for each sector.

Canadian firms also tell me that foreign governments are much more aggressive at assisting businesses when they sell internationally, offering subsidies to offset the costs of attending trade shows, travelling to new markets and preparing marketing material. Australia, Singapore, the United Kingdom and others also provide direct financial support to businesses that want to expand internationally.

Here in Canada, the need for businesses to reduce the risks of going global is no less important. New government programs are required to offset some of their costs to start the journey.

Finally, the technology sector’s most important raw material is highly skilled talent. The best workers in the world are mobile and want to go where they have the best chance for success.

In the past, Canada has been a leader at attracting talent to our businesses and educational institutions. But the new requirements for approving a work visa have increased the hiring process by three to four months.

The United States was once known as having tough work visa requirements, but it is now easier to obtain a visa there than in Canada, putting our companies at a huge disadvantage. The federal government needs to address this situation quickly.

A simple solution would be to set an exemption based on salary. Most companies would hire locally if they could, and when they hire foreigners, it is usually because they have a skill set and experience their Canadian counterparts didn’t.

Across Canada, governments have made an investment in promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers. We are building companies with very strong technical skills. But when you ask most businesses to name their biggest recruiting challenge, they will point to a lack of workers with so-called “softer” skills, including sales, marketing and customer support.

In many cases, Canadian companies need to import workers with these customer-facing skills because we don’t have enough homegrown talent to support growth. Just as it invested in STEM programs, the government must now invest in growing a talent base with customer-facing skills.

There are a number of other solutions Justin Trudeau’s government must consider, such as introducing new industry and academic collaborative research funding, reducing red tape, reforming federal procurement rules to support Canadian businesses and creating programs that encourage companies to invest in new technology, R&D and skills training. All of these need to be addressed over the next four years.

For real change to happen, our tech sector and the new Liberal government have to understand each other. We need to communicate in language that is clear, simple and consistent. Canada’s business community, and the country as a whole, will be better for it.

 

Jeffrey Dale is the director and co-founder of the Odawa Group as well as the former president of the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation.