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Canadian chip industry faces brain drain challenge

2024-04-02

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The brain drain to the United States has always been a challenge for Canada's technology industry: whether local companies or multinational companies want to develop business in Canada, they may face some resistance in recruiting talents.

Recently, an expert said in an interview with "EE Times", a sister publication of "International Electronic Business News", that Canada is taking many positive measures, including universities that are continuously providing needed talents to the industry, due to the wave of artificial intelligence (AI) sweeping the country. , the demand for R&D and design positions is in high demand.

According to industry sources with immigration experience in the United States and Canada, Canada's immigration policies are very friendly to students seeking to obtain advanced degrees and are willing to stay in the country, and it is generally easier to bring in foreign expertise.

Still, there are other voices expressing concerns about Canada's ability to expand manufacturing capabilities and develop talent. They said that Canada must expand the number of college graduates in relevant majors.


01 Aggressive immigration policies are tempting

Ann Arbor, Michigan-based NS Nanotech will recently expand the company's Canadian operations to Montreal to better leverage its early experience at McGill University.

Seth Coe Sullivan, president and co-founder of NS Nanotech, said Canada's brain drain problem is no different than what the U.S. faces in the industry. Coe Sullivan said college graduates are also leaving the United States to work overseas, and some are even returning to their original locations in Asia, Europe or the Middle East. He believes that Canada and the United States are experiencing similar situations.

“The feedback we've received in Canada so far has been very positive,” he added. “This is a great example of Canada doing it right.” According to Coe Sullivan, who just received a visa for a new employee from Montreal A copy of a job offer signed by the new employee stating that she wanted to stay in Canada after returning from studying abroad.

Coe Sullivan said that in order to speed up the processing of immigration applications in 2022, Canada has made coordinated efforts and announced in November last year that it would speed up the processing of some visit visas.

“We need people with skills,” he said of recent hirings, “and we're not going to go through the tedious process of waiting for a visa in the U.S. because that would take too long.”

Coe Sullivan is confident the employee will obtain permanent residency in Canada before his visa expires. "We are very happy to have found her."

02 Silicon Valley atmosphere

Six-year-old Astera Labs has been expanding its Canadian operations in the Greater Toronto area and Vancouver to advance product development.

Ahmad Danesh, vice president of product management at Astera Labs, noted: “Toronto and Vancouver have a lot of talented engineers.

He noted that the company collaborates extensively with the school on educational programs and hires many recent graduates. Danesh graduated from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, part of Metro Vancouver (where TV shows such as The X-Files, Stargate, and Battlestar Galactica are filmed) popular locations).


Danesh said the local government has also given strong support. “Vancouver and Toronto are both amazing cities where talented and intellectually gifted people want to live in a different place.”

Astera Labs focuses on building connections for cloud and artificial intelligence infrastructure. The company's experience supporting large enterprises makes it an attractive place to work, as the cost of living here is relatively low compared to Silicon Valley. "It's a way for Canadians to get involved in the Silicon Valley craze without having to be in Silicon Valley," he said.

Danesh said Astera Labs' growth has been driven by high demand for network connectivity. He pointed out that 20% of the company's job openings are concentrated in Canada. The country has amassed a wealth of connectivity expertise dating back to the heyday of telecoms such as Nortel Networks and Newbridge Networks.

Today, Ethernet, PCIe and CXL all play a key role in enabling the bandwidth required for artificial intelligence and cloud infrastructure, and Astera Labs can find the right talent in Canada and grow with the industry.

“Canada and its universities do a really good job of developing talent pools,” Danesh said.


03 There is a scarcity of experienced team leaders

However, the most difficult problem for Astera Labs is that it is difficult to find industry veterans.

Sagar Satish, the company's senior director in Toronto, said it's difficult to find people locally who can lead the team because Astera Labs is competing with established companies.

“We don't have the vibrant startup culture of the San Francisco Bay Area or Austin, Texas, where you find industry veterans building teams from scratch,” he says.

Satish believes that the University of Toronto is an excellent source of engineers. "We will continue to recruit recent graduates and co-op students and build a pipeline over the next four to five years. We can hire a lot of people with university research experience. It works."


Satish pointed out that people engaged in research are of high quality, which is often related to their experience in solving complex problems. However, the Toronto region still lacks sufficient expertise in semiconductors. He said: "These talents are only responsible for certain tasks in large organizations, and their thinking has been solidified. They do not have as much initiative to create new things or join start-up teams."

Danesh said he believes Canada's strengths lie in development and design, as well as the software side of semiconductors, rather than participating in the global chip supply chain or large-scale manufacturing.


04 Canadian design performs better

Untether AI was founded in Toronto, where it is also headquartered. Untether AI has kept its "engineering focus" in Toronto because other non-resident companies in the industry have offices here, including its competition, said Robert Beachler, vice president of product at the artificial intelligence-focused chip acceleration company. opponent.

As a 35-year veteran of the chip industry in Silicon Valley, Beachler pointed out that the University of Toronto's historical heritage in the semiconductor field has made the place a hotbed of design talent and a key to the chip industry's education ecosystem.

Untether AI receives thousands of applications for collaborative projects each year by leveraging the many "thriving" collaborative and engineering programs at the University of Waterloo and the University of Toronto, Beachler said.

"Universities still need to continue to do their job and not be distracted by some novelty." He added that Canada needs to continue its excellent academic and research programs and cultivate excellent talents. “This has been recognized and has been used to its advantage.”


05 Remote work is helping Canada

In recent years, due to the pandemic, some people who originally went to the United States have begun to return to Canada to work remotely, which has also reversed the brain drain in Canada to a certain extent.

Like Coe Sullivan, Beachler is pleased with Canada's streamlined immigration policies, which help build a highly skilled workforce. Beachler says the diversity he sees when he visits Toronto is proof of that.

"Right now, high tech, semiconductors and artificial intelligence are in a virtuous cycle of self-sufficiency," he said. "People who have tried this in other regions in the past just didn't reach the tipping point, but in my opinion, now Canada has With such conditions.”


06 Engineers and technicians are hot spots for recruitment

Coe Sullivan said NS Nanotech has done well in recruiting talent in Canada because of its focus on research.

However, he added that he was preparing for the need to hire engineers or technicians, but he didn't know that there was a semiconductor cleanroom with 1,000 technicians within an hour's drive of downtown Montreal, where he A new employee or two could be found. "I just don't know where they're going to come from."

Although Frederic Nabki, chief technology officer and co-founder of Spark Microsystems, pointed out that many Canadian university graduates have knowledge in semiconductors, photonics and quantum computing. But he still believes that Canadian universities need to further expand their courses and produce more graduates with the necessary skills to meet the needs of the booming chip industry.


University of Toronto professor Tony Chan Carusone agrees that Canada needs to double down on its strong talent pool. “We hear about talent shortages every day,” he said, noting that a lack of talent could hinder industry investment. This professor is mainly engaged in the teaching and research of integrated circuits and systems.

Carusone said some large schools offer excellent chip design training, but many of Canada's other excellent universities may not have the history or infrastructure to train semiconductor design talent.

To solve this problem, he suggested setting up shared funds to allow more talents to enter the chip industry.


07 Lack of industry veterans

Nabki believes that a lack of mentors is also a factor limiting success.

He said the collapse of Nortel Networks nearly 20 years ago, along with massive layoffs at BlackBerry, created a gap as aging talent left the industry. In the wake of this "implosion", there was a proliferation of small companies lacking technical guidance.

As a start-up company, Spark is recruiting a large number of fresh graduates. "Mentorship is critical to our company," Nabki said.

Despite the challenges he believes Canada faces in education, Nabki remains optimistic about the country's education system's ability to fuel talent pipelines.

"Like the world's outstanding semiconductor powers, we not only have all the raw materials and talents we need." He said, "We also have everything we need, but we need to be full of energy."



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