Alarm bells should be going off in Canada’s STEM industry

Just a fuzzy memory now?
Just a fuzzy memory now?
Image: AP Photo/Julio Cortez
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As Quartz has noted before, Canada has a lot to offer—whether to Canadians, who are enjoying a widespread increase in household wealth while shrinking the gap between rich and poor, or to Indian techies, who are increasingly looking to Canada as the US tightens restrictions on work visas.

We weren’t wrong when we declared that the “American” dream is alive and well on the other side of the US northern border, but a new study from Canada suggests the story, at least for young people working in STEM fields, is a lot more complicated.

According to a survey from the Innovation Policy Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, one in four Canadian STEM grads from three of the country’s top colleges are leaving Canada, with the vast majority heading to the US. The largest “brain drain” can be seen among software-engineering majors, two-thirds of whom left Canada in the time period covered by the study (2015 and 2016). A third of students in computer engineering and computer science also flew south. Silicon Valley is the biggest draw.

As the Globe and Mail reports, the survey results should be setting off alarms in the domestic industry and among government agencies that subsidize education, only to see graduates contribute to economies elsewhere. And it throws a wrench into the narrative sold by prime minister Justin Trudeau’s administration, which has repeatedly pitched Canada as a rising, globalist hotbed of talent and innovation.

According to the survey, which looked at data from more than 3,000 students at University of Waterloo, University of British Columbia, and University of Toronto (using LinkedIn and some follow-up interviews), the departing grads are seeking both higher salaries and experience working with globally recognized tech giants like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook. They cited opportunities for better mentoring and growth among the reasons they’d like to find positions at these iconic firms.

Canada doesn’t offer companies of the same scale, nor has its pay rates kept pace with US salaries, even as the cost of living in cities like Toronto and Vancouver has skyrocketed.

The CEO of the Toronto tech firm Delvinia Interactive, which initiated and partly funded the study, told the Globe that word on the street was that Canadian grads “weren’t even considering” applying for jobs at home.  The dean of the University of Waterloo’s engineering department, however, takes issue with the survey’s results, telling the Globe and Mail that the actual migration rate among his school’s grads was slightly lower than 10%, and that 85% of its STEM grads list a Canadian address as their home address.

But Zachary Spicer, a senior associate at the Innovation Policy Lab and the study’s author, argued that the college’s address data is misleading. “The mailing address on file for recent graduates could well be their family address,” he told the paper, which is why he went with LinkedIn data. “Graduates,” he said, “have much more incentive to update their LinkedIn profiles than they do to update their address with the university to receive their alumni magazines.”