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U.S. IT managers turn to Canada to find scarce IT talent

August 26, 1998
Web posted at: 11:55 AM EDT

by Alice LaPlante

(IDG) -- When Bruce Benda completed his bachelor's degree in computer science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, he was eager to jump into the IT workforce. But the only job Benda could find in his field paid a measly $8.50 per hour (and those were Canadian dollars) testing computer games. So he set his sights elsewhere. To the U.S., to be precise. He's now a systems administrator at Mpath Interactive, a Mountain View, California-based online gaming company.

He's very happy. Silicon Valley is the place to be. Benda not only has a job -- he also has a promising career in the hottest technology market in the world. And the financial rewards are so much more lucrative that Benda just returned from treating his family to a Hawaiian vacation.

Benda isn't alone in making this transcontinental jump. As shortages of U.S. technologists become increasingly acute, "American employers are naturally turning toward Canada as a source of skilled workers," says Joseph C. Grasmick, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based immigration attorney who specializes in helping U.S. information technology organizations locate and hire Canadian technical workers. "And Canadians are crossing the border to take advantage of the demand," says Grasmick, who also sponsors a World Wide Web site devoted to Canadian/U.S. immigration issues (

"Canada has an excellent pool of educated workers," says Leo Ducharme, IT manager at Klockner Namasco Corp., a Germany-based steel manufacturer with offices in Atlanta. A Canadian native, Ducharme was transferred to Namasco's U.S. operations 15 years ago, first to the corporate office in Michigan only an hour away from his native Windsor, Ontario, and then finally to Atlanta.

For Canadians, the advantages of looking in a southernly direction are clear, Ducharme says. "The opportunities in the States are so much better, and the taxes are lower."

And the legalities are a breeze. Unlike foreign nationals from most other countries, Canadian workers don't need to go through the arduous H1-B visa process. Since the North American Free Trade (NAFTA) agreement was signed, any Canadian can work in the U.S. under a TN-1 visa, which requires presenting only an "offer letter" from any employer to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

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"They're the closest thing to a U.S. citizen," declares Heinz Bartesch, director of technical search at the Professional Consulting Network, Inc. in San Francisco. Bartesch has placed three Canadians in high-level IT positions thus far this year. "And their credentials are excellent. Canada has some terrific computer science schools," he says.

And the numbers make U.S. offers look very attractive to Canadians, points out Doug Weir, president of Weir Executive Search Associates in Toronto. The Canadian dollar currently is worth only 60% of the U.S. dollar. And taxes are substantially less in the U.S. (Canadians pay in excess of 50% of their income in various taxes.) An IT job in Toronto that pays $50,000 Canadian will command a U.S. salary of $70,000 or more.

Even without figuring out the currency conversion and tax benefits, the U.S. offer is more attractive. "Do the math, and you'll see why Canadians are accepting American offers," Weir says.

IT managers in the U.S. are just being pragmatic when they head north to recruit. But the subject is a political hot potato in Canada. In the past six months, there's been a huge hue and cry about the "brain drain" causing Canada to lose its best and brightest.

There currently are 15,000 programmer vacancies in Canada, and that number is expected to swell to 20,000 by 2000, says Debbie Lough, director of human resources at Telus Advanced Communications in Calgary, Alberta. The "help-wanted" signs look remarkably similar to those being hung in the U.S., she says: Object-oriented languages. Unix. Java. Network designers.

Within her relatively small 550-employee subsidiary of Telus, Canada's telecom giant, Lough needs to find at least 100 IT workers during the next year. In the company as a whole, "they're looking to fill 200 IT positions within the next six months alone," she says. When she visits a college campus or attends a local job fair, "the Americans are there in force," she says.

Interestingly, says C. David Banks, the president of Resource Professionals, Inc., a Calgary-based technology recruiting firm, Canadian firms are much less flexible about hiring less-experienced workers.

"U.S. firms tend to be a little more flexible. They'll take people with less experience, as long as they are willing to learn the appropriate skills," Banks says. And despite the apparent urgency of the IT employment market, "Canadian firms don't seem to be willing to match the salaries paid in the U.S.," he says.

Much of that can be attributed to the fact that Canadian companies tend to be smaller, Lough points out. "It's difficult to handle a large number of recent grads when you have a relatively small IT staff," she says.

Flavian DeLima says that's changing -- but slowly. After graduating from York University in Toronto with a degree in computer science in 1995, DeLima had trouble finding a job despite highly publicized shortages of IT candidates.

He founded the Canadian Youth Employment Alliance and jumped into researching human resources departments at corporations across Canada in an attempt to reconcile the apparent contradiction.

One major reason: The university system in Canada is controlled by the government; there is little synergy between industry and academia. Whereas U.S. computer science programs emphasize hands-on experience through industry alliances, co-op programs and summer internships, Canada has done little of the same.

One exception is the highly regarded University of Waterloo, which requires its computer science majors to complete off-campus stints within the industry before earning their degree. "That's also why Bill Gates heads up to Waterloo, and why Netscape recruits heavily from there as well," DeLima says.

LaPlante is a freelance writer in Woodside, Calif.

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