Even as Canada is working to make itself a hub for cutting-edge technologies and attract investment from global tech companies, much of its own homegrown tech talent is looking for work abroad, a new study finds. Led by the University of Toronto’s Zachary Spicer, the study found that one in four recent Canadian STEM graduates from the country’s top universities were working in other countries, mostly the US, the Globe and Mail reported earlier this month. Figures like these, Spicer warns, are enough to raise concerns about brain drain:
The numbers were higher for graduates of computer engineering and computer science (30 per cent), engineering science (27 per cent) and software engineering, where two out three graduates were working outside Canada, mostly in the United States. Nearly 44 per cent of those working abroad were employed as software engineers, with Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Amazon listed as top employers. …
“I think policy makers should look at this as a bit of a wake-up call,” said Mr. Spicer, who said the study was the first scholarly effort to map out Canada’s tech brain drain. “When we see certain fields where upward of 65 per cent of a graduating class are leaving for the U.S., I think there should be concerns there that our homegrown companies aren’t even going to be able to access some of that talent. If we found in the 1960s that 60 per cent of our auto workers were leaving to work in other countries … we probably would have held a royal commission.”
This study’s findings may comes as a surprise, considering that Canada’s tech sector is by all accounts on an upward trend.
Boston Seaport (Helioscribe/Shutterstock)
Amazon announced this week that it was opening new offices and expanding its footprints in the North American tech hubs of Boston and Vancouver. While neither of these announcements represents the highly anticipated selection of a site for the e-commerce giant’s second headquarters (Boston is on the list of 20 finalists; Vancouver is not), both plans envision creating several thousand jobs and stand to have an appreciable impact on the local talent and housing markets in these cities.
The Boston Globe‘s Tim Logan reported on Tuesday’s announcement of a new facility in Seaport Square, a major new development in the South Boston Waterfront neighborhood, which will be primarily dedicated to developing its voice-activated Alexa technology, along with cloud computing and robotics—already focal points of Amazon’s existing offices in the highly-educated city:
The company has long based much of its Alexa and Audible teams at a growing office in Kendall Square, and has beefed up its Amazon Web Services and robotics development teams here in recent years. Its new building, set to begin construction later this year and open in 2021, would mark the company’s biggest presence to date, and comes as Amazon opens a new office in nearby Fort Point.
Along with an office in the Back Bay, a robotics facility in North Reading and a massive distribution center in Fall River, the company has added 3,500 jobs in Massachusetts since 2011, with these 2,000 more to come. They have an option for a second building — with room for 2,000 more jobs — at Seaport Square should they want to expand further.
Amazon is also opening a new office in Vancouver, one of Canada’s primary tech hubs and a short hop from the company’s Seattle headquarters. Taylor Soper covered the news for GeekWire:
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More H-1B visas are being granted to US tech companies, whereas India-based outsourcing firms are receiving fewer of them, according to an analysis of government data on 2017 H-1B allocations from the National Foundation for American Policy. This trend, the NFAP argues in its policy brief, “reflect[s] the strong demand for high-skilled talent” in the US and “would appear to undermine the argument that the federal government should impose new restrictions on H-1B visas.”
The Trump administration has indeed been determined to restrict the use of these visas, which are awarded to highly skilled foreign workers to fill gaps in the US labor market, as part of President Donald Trump’s overall anti-immigration posture. While only an act of Congress can fundamentally restructure of the program and Trump’s desired rule changes have not yet been enacted, the administration has subtly undermined it by suspending premium processing two years in a row, tightening approval standards, and proposing to end work authorization for H-4 visa holders, the spouses of H-1B workers (a plan the administration reaffirmed this week).
It is difficult to say with certainty, however, whether the shift observed in the NFAP’s research is a rebuke of the Trump administration’s crackdown or a consequence of it. It may reflect the changing strategies of major Indian outsourcing companies since Trump’s election, which portended a change in H-1B policy and made it riskier for these firms to rely on the visas. Infosys, India’s second-largest IT services and outsourcing company and one of the leading users H-1Bs, announced plans last year to hire 10,000 US citizen employees and open new innovation hubs throughout the US. Infosys said at the time that this decision predated the Trump administration, but it still serves to guard against a scenario in which the supply of H-1B visas was curtailed.
Some observers see the gravitation of H-1Bs away from outsourcing companies as a response to the Trump administration’s policies, or even a sign that these policies are working. Axios’s Stef Kight captured both sides of the debate in her reporting:
Apple is adding a floor to its offices in downtown Seattle, giving the company enough room to seat nearly 500 employees there, Nat Levy reports at GeekWire:
Apple is preparing to move into another floor at Two Union Square, a 56-story office tower in downtown Seattle, giving it all or part of five floors of the building, GeekWire has learned through permitting documents and visits to the building. The latest move brings Apple to more than 70,000 square feet, which equates to room for somewhere between 350 and 475 people, based on standard corporate leasing ratios for tech companies.
The iPhone maker announced big plans to expand its presence on Puget Sound last year, as Levy’s colleague Todd Bishop reported at the time, after buying up the Seattle-based machine learning startup Turi and establishing a $1 million endowed professorship in artificial intelligence and machine learning at the University of Washington. Competing for AI talent is decidedly the name of the game here, Levy explains, as the northwestern city is emerging as a hub for this new technology. Amazon and Microsoft are based in or near Seattle, while Facebook and Google both have significant footprints there.
All these tech giants are racing toward potentially transformative innovations in AI and machine learning; to this end, they have been grabbing all the experts they can get their hands on for the past few years, often by acqui-hiring startup founders and talent.
Bilal Aliyar m/Shutterstock
The application period for H-1B temporary skilled worker visas came and went last week, with US Citizenship and Immigration Services reaching its petition cap this year within five days of the application period opening on April 2, CNet reported on Friday. In a process that has become commonplace in recent years, demand for the 85,000 highly-coveted visas issued each year quickly surpassed the number available, prompting USCIS to stop accepting applications. The visas will be awarded by lottery and the recipients will be eligible to come to the US and start working in October.
Nobody is particularly in favor of the H-1B lottery system. Advocates of a more liberal immigration policy consider the annual limit arbitrary and far too low, as in this statement reported by CNet:
“That’s it for the entire year for our nation’s ability to bring in the best and brightest individuals through the H-1B program to come create American jobs,” Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, a US lobby in favor of immigration reform, said in a statement. “In addition to forcing us to miss out on the creation of American jobs, these arbitrary limits will stifle medical innovation and wage growth, and will hurt our economy.”
At the other end of the spectrum, however, are critics who say the US issues too many of these visas and is insufficiently selective in how it awards them, such as President Donald Trump, who rode into Washington last year vowing to reform the H-1B system as part of a broader effort to reduce both legal and illegal immigration to the US. In his “Buy American, Hire American” executive order issued a year ago, Trump called for changes to the program to crack down on what he described as fraud and abuse, and advocated awarding the visas based on merit rather than by a random lottery.
Nonetheless, the Wall Street Journal reports, this round of H-1B applications visas is being distributed without the major changes Trump has requested.
Apple made a big move in the battle for top AI talent this week, hiring John Giannandrea away from Google, where he had until Monday been chief of search and artificial intelligence. Apple announced on Tuesday that Giannandrea would lead its machine learning and AI strategy, reporting directly to CEO Tim Cook, the New York Times reported:
Apple has made other high-profile hires in the field, including the Carnegie Mellon professor Russ Salakhutdinov. Mr. Salakhutdinov studied at the University of Toronto under Geoffrey Hinton, who helps oversee the Google Brain lab.
Apple has taken a strong stance on protecting the privacy of people who use its devices and online services, which could put it at a disadvantage when building services using neural networks. Researchers train these systems by pooling enormous amounts of digital data, sometimes from customer services. Apple, however, has said it is developing methods that would allow it to train these algorithms without compromising privacy.
Cook stressed Apple’s commitment to charting a privacy-conscious course on AI development in his statement on Tuesday, saying Giannandrea “shares our commitment to privacy and our thoughtful approach as we make computers even smarter and more personal.” While safeguarding users’ privacy may pose a significant technical challenge in AI and machine learning, that commitment could have an upside from a marketing perspective at a time when tech companies are facing heightened scrutiny and criticism of their data privacy practices.
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Two bills that would have all but banned the use of non-compete agreements by employers in Washington State did not come up for a vote before a February 14 deadline for moving forward in the current legislative session, GeekWire’s Monica Nickelsburg reports:
The House bill would have prohibited non-compete agreements for employees working fewer than 40 hours per week or earning less than 200 percent of the minimum wage. Independent contractors and employees taking a second job would have also been protected from non-competes.
The Senate bill is broader. It would have prohibited “any contract that restrains a person from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business of any kind,” except for an employee who sells all of his or her operating assets or ownership interest in a business entity to a buyer operating a “like business.” Exemptions would also have been made for partners who disassociate from a business partnership.
This is the third legislative session in which Washington lawmakers have tried and failed to pass restrictions on non-competes. Proponents of this legislation say it would help make the state more competitive with California, where the use of non-compete clauses is almost always prohibited, as a magnet for talent and business investment, particularly in the tech sector. However, Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association, tells GeekWire that this comparison is misleading and that it was wise for the legislature not to rush new legislation in this regard.