BC Tech Strategy Aims to Streamline Immigration, Train 600K Students to Code

Content provided by Business in Vancouver

It may be that more venture capital is needed to ignite B.C.’s tech startup scene, but Vancouver entrepreneur Igor Faletski believes the province’s talent shortages are tough to overcome.

“I would fix immigration any day before I tried to get more capital here,” the Russian-born CEO of Mobify said at a panel Monday (January 18) in downtown Vancouver at the inaugural B.C. Tech Summit.

“Investors fund talent. If we have more talent here, we’ll have more capital here, more startups. If the talent pool here is limited and we can’t grow as fast as San Francisco or New York, then we’ll miss out on the opportunities we would have (otherwise).”

Securing more talent was at the top of Premier Christy Clark’s agenda just hours earlier at the summit as she laid out B.C.’s first technology strategy.

The strategy includes simplifying the B.C. Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) to bring in more skilled tech workers, and introducing mandatory coding classes to the province’s 600,000 K-12 students.

In December, the province revealed the first part of the strategy included a $100-million tech fund to provide local startups with more venture capital.

It can take between six and 18 months for workers to be approved to enter Canada, depending on the country they’re arriving from and their specialized skills. The PNP process can take a few months on the province’s end, but the goal of the technology strategy is to shorten it to a few weeks.

B.C. has 5,500 spots allocated to it under the PNP. Last year it was able to scoop an additional 300 spots that went unused in other jurisdictions.

Prior to 2014, tech companies used the temporary foreign workers (TFW) program frequently to bring in skilled workers from overseas before the federal government curtailed the use of program following concerns it was being abused in the food service sector.

“That noise and that distraction has subsided. We can have more rational discussions about what’s really needed,” Bill Tam, CEO of the B.C. Technology Industry Association, told Business In Vancouver.

“Our hope is that in partnership with the provincial government, we can make the case (to Ottawa) that says we need to streamline this.”

He added the first part of the technology strategy, a $100-million tech fund announced last month, “was a very, very significant step” in the process of helping startups commercialize.

For now, he’s still awaiting a sit-down with officials from Ottawa to consult with them over the tech sector’s desire to retool current immigration policies.

Warren Roy, CEO of Vancouver-based fintech Global Relay, said there’s no question the private sector has to push the federal government for more streamlined immigration policies.

“The most important thing for the companies (to have) is the initiative and the awareness to recognize that they need to bring in senior talent out of States to help grow companies to a significant level,” he said.

“We have a huge talent pool in B.C., but we need to strengthen it with better mentorship at a senior level coming from people that come out of large U.S. and global organizations.”

Roy said it’s not up to the government to find that talent but Ottawa should be making it easier for companies to bring specialized workers across the worker if they can’t be found in B.C.

While workers might be better compensated in Seattle or San Francisco, the CEO said salary is not the only reason why top-level talent would move north.

“You don’t have to be the top bid in town in terms of the actual salary number. You have to have an overall package and part of that package is Vancouver itself,” he said.

But Roy, along with others in the tech sector, voiced concerns about a federal Liberal campaign pledge to cap stock-option deductions, which are considered one of the tools the startup community uses to compete with larger tech companies.

He said it would be “a mistake to target entrepreneurs” instead of trying to incentivize them to make more money.

“It would be terrible for the tech community in Canada,” Clark told reporters after she announced the B.C. tech strategy.

When asked if the province had examined ways to bring more high-level, skilled tech workers to B.C. as part of its strategy, Clark said access to the new $100-million venture capital fund and the province’s low personal income taxes would prove enticing.

“Our focus is growing these small startups in the province but also to get to increase the number of 500-plus-employee companies in the tech sector because that’s when you can really put British Columbia on the map for tech,” she said.

“The talent pool that we are creating in British Columbia at universities and through the school system is really something I think is going to anchor a lot of new businesses here.”

The government will begin to introduce coding into the curriculum in September as part of a three-year, phased-in approach. The province will be creating professional development resources for the teachers who are expected to teach B.C.’s 600,000 K-12 students to code.

No additional funding has been earmarked for teaching code and no additional funding will be provided for the equipment that will be used to teach coding skills.

Meanwhile, Victoria also pledged to continue funding coding academies at five post-secondary institutes. The province spent $500,000 during the current fiscal year and plans to expand that in the next fiscal year as part of the tech strategy.

In addition to the $100-million venture capital fund and promises to strengthen access to talent, the tech strategy will address access to additional markets through the creation of a developers exchange.

The exchange would function as a platform allowing developers to build products and services using data from inside and outside government, and then market those products back to the government.

The exchange would include a payment mechanism, similar to an app store.

Meanwhile. both Victoria and Ottawa also announced Monday they would spend an additional $4.5 million over the next five years under the Canada-B.C. Job Grant to help employees in the tech sector upgrade their skills.

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