Communitech hopes billboards put Canada atop talent charts


Communitech has launched a campaign to attract tech talent from the U.S. to Canada after President Donald Trump suspended the H-1B visa allowing high-skilled foreign workers in the country. 

The Kitchener-Waterloo-based innovation hub is spending between $50,000 and $100,000 on nine billboards in the Bay Area that play on the uncertainty raised by the visa suspension. “What if,” the billboards read. “What if my visa gets cancelled? What if I lose my job and health insurance?”

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U.S. tech firms have railed against the visa changes—as well as a since-moderated order restricting foreign students from staying in the U.S. while studying remotely—arguing they will block their ability to recruit critical talent. But Canadian CEOs and recruiters view the restrictions as an opportunity to help meet Canada’s need for innovation-economy workers. “We’ve long believed that the community and the country that attracts the globe’s smartest people will win,”  Communitech CEO Iain Klugman told The Logic. “America has done that successfully for decades, but there’s a crack in the door right now and we want to stick our foot in it, and we would love to get as many as these H-1B visa holders as possible. You can’t get this visa unless you’re an extraordinarily talented individual with world-leading skills. I think it would be a huge boon to Canada.”

Klugman said the billboards are helping to drive interest in the campaign, which has a digital component as well. In the past week, Communitech has seen a 164 per cent increase in traffic to its website, with 58 per cent of users being in the U.S. 

Klugman said he’s heard from visa holders interested in relocating, and companies interested in hiring them. VanHack CEO Ilya Brotzky has had similar conversations. His Vancouver-based recruiting firm, which matches foreign tech talent with jobs in Canada, saw 100 new H-1B candidates join their platform in the month following the U.S. ban, about 25 per cent more than the month prior. And more than 10 Canadian companies have contacted VanHack about hiring U.S. H-1B visa holders, which Brotzky said had never happened before the ban.

Companies are already using Ottawa’s Global Skills Strategy, a fast-track work-permit program launched in July 2017, to bring in Silicon Valley talent. As of the end of June, U.S. residents had received 20,986 approvals for temporary residence in Canada under the program, nearly a third of the total, while U.S. citizens accounted for just 971 accepted applications, The Logic’s analysis shows. 

This isn’t the first time Canada has bet on billboards to beckon tech talent north. In 2013, the federal government spent US$16,000 for a single ad outside the San Francisco airport promoting its new Start-up Visa program. “H-1B Problems? Pivot to Canada,” read the 14-metre-wide message.  

The program itself has struggled to attract many entrepreneurs. In May 2019, The Logic reported that just 256 founders had received permanent residence under the program between 2014 and 2018, bringing 168 companies with them. 

Communichtech also put up billboards in the days before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as part of a campaign encouraging Canadians working in Silicon Valley to return home. In September, it plans to expand its latest campaign to include billboards in Austin and Boston.