Can We Bring Canadian Tech Talent Home? The Challenges with Repatriation
Updated: Sep 28
More than a year ago, we launched Canada Connect - a program designed to find and then match experienced expats with top Canadian tech companies. We saw a big opportunity to address a critical need.
Where Canadian tech companies have the big ideas and ambition to grow fast, the domestic talent pool lacks the volume of experienced leaders to fuel this growth.
We also saw that for every exec who was considering a move home, the barriers were tremendous.
Expats lacked the network and insight to navigate the job market.
We looked at the political climate, the fact that the Canadian tech scene has changed so drastically in the past decade, and heard many stories of expats with family realities like aging parents or young families that were providing a strong pull homeward. So with this perfect storm of factors, we dove in with efforts to connect with great ex-pats, understand their strengths and motivators and then facilitate introductions with top Canadian companies.
It was an experiment - and we found our assumptions were mostly valid. We developed a roster of more than 50 very talented, senior expats and shared these profiles with about 100 Canadian companies and VCs. And now we’re retooling, but with a much better understanding of the realities of repatriation.
It was clear that leaders and companies alike were interested and that we’d uncovered a real need. We facilitated many great conversations and assisted with a handful of successful repatriations, but there were a lot of surprising challenges along the way.
Here is a summary of our what we learned:
1. The Compensation Divide Remains a Significant Barrier:
We knew before we started that we’d uncover big gaps in compensation, however many candidates were shocked at typical salaries in Canada. The common reaction by an expat to the lower salaries was a feeling that Canadian companies had a lower perceived value in their skills and contribution. Many individuals were perplexed at why, for a company competing for the same global market, the Canadian company would pay significantly salaries for the same role and skills.
For example, we worked with a young technical team lead at a major US tech firm (rhymes with Boogle) who was making $300k USD + bonus. He was open to coming home for a similar role with similar compensation - but quickly saw that this was an impossibility. Canadian companies just don’t offer $300,000+/year plus bonus for a team lead.
Similarly, we spoke with a very talented Product Management leader in the Boston area. He was interested in Canadian opportunities but couldn’t justify moving his family back to Canada - where the cost of living is similar, but his salary would be less than 60% of his current earnings.
Individuals with strong personal motivations - better work-life balance, parents with health issues, young families, an unhappy spouse - are more accepting of the adjustment they’ll make when moving from NYC or California. They do the math and see that the cost of living and quality of life balance out the salary gap. The value of being closer to family or returning home was an intangible that made up the difference. But often, that gap is too big a leap - and candidates who are only passively looking opt to stay put.
2. US Communication and Leadership Styles = Un-Canadian Ego and Arrogance:
Though we take pride in our differences from our Southern neighbours, we can often forget just how different Canadian and US work cultures can be in practice. We were surprised that differences in workplace communication and leadership styles would come up as a frequent blocker.
We worked with many Canadians who had spent 5-10 years in the US and developed their leadership skills in quickly scaling California tech companies. The culture of those companies demanded a bold and blunt communication style and an abundance of confidence in leaders and customer-facing execs. However, when that approach was brought into a Canadian context, domestic hiring managers found these leaders to be arrogant and lacking the humble, ego-free characteristics of their ideal employees. As executives are key in developing and maintaining company culture, there were concerns about how the different style of communication would manifest. The hiring managers we spoke with were not willing to risk an upset of their culture on an otherwise excellent candidate.
This is a tough one to solve for. We agree that companies should not compromise culture and values alignment. In key roles and in critical stages of growth, leadership style and fit are crucial. But it was very interesting to see these cultural differences in action nonetheless.
3. Canadian Companies Underspend on Marketing Compared to their US Counterparts:
We recruited several marketing leaders from scaling US-based tech companies. They were excited about the potential of the products and the growth opportunities of Canadian businesses. When they looked more closely, the common observation was that marketing budgets and salaries were significantly lower than they were accustomed to. US tech companies seem to spend more on go-to-market strategies, with more sophisticated tools, more paid-advertising, and higher salaries to attract top talent.
One CMO we spoke with commented that the Canadian company he met with (Series B scale-up with big VC backers), could not really be serious about becoming a leader in their market, as they were being outspent 10:1 by their US competitors. Interestingly this has played out as he would have expected, as this company was since acquired by a large US company - a great outcome but certainly not the world domination that they aspired to.
While we are very proud of our scrappy success stories, if we want to attract top marketing talent do we need to change how we commercialize?
4. We Still Prefer Who and What We Know:
When comparing a local candidate with a Canadian expat, most hiring managers will opt to hire someone local. There is a natural preference for the person who has worked at familiar companies, and who can be easily vetted through mutual connections. This was even true when they admitted that the local candidate had less relevant experience. The risk inherent in relocation and in trusting unfamiliar references outweighed the potential upside.
So while companies were excited to entertain expat candidates with interesting US pedigree, the safe choice typically won out.
The observations above come from our anecdotal experience, but may not represent the reality for many tech companies. Had a different experience? We’d love to hear from Canadian tech companies about your thoughts and experience.
The need remains and it is critical. In order for Canadian companies to keep growing, we need a bigger pool of experienced leaders. At Artemis Canada, we’ve refined our approach and will continue to make introductions through Canada Connect as our way of addressing this need. There are large scale roadblocks to bringing home talent that the Canadian tech community can address. And hopefully, with more successful repatriation, our Canadian tech companies will have accelerated growth and learnings from a more diverse base of experience.
Want to learn more about CanadaConnect and how it works? Visit www.CanadaConnect.com