Friday, March 20, 2009

Rust Belt Immigration: Hamilton

The economic downturn is taking a toll on the Rust Belt in Southern Ontario, making Atlantic Canada seem attractive by comparison. Hamilton is taking an unusual approach to dealing with the problem. Instead of trying to protect local jobs for local people, the community is attempting to better assist its highly-skilled immigrants and attract new talent:

The council, modelled on the Poverty Roundtable and Jobs Prosperity Collaborative, will create the immigration strategy.

Though encouraged by the initiative, [Ines Rios (executive director of St. Joseph's Immigrant Women's Centre)] fears the economic downturn will make it even more difficult for Hamilton to attract skilled immigrants. She believes the city would be wise to market itself as an educational hub.

Even in a recession, Madina Wasuge, executive director of the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion and co-convener of the council, believes Hamilton must push ahead with its strategy. Waiting, she warns, could mean being left behind.

Canada is well ahead of the curve when it comes to recognizing the talent shortage looming on the other side of the current depression. As for American Rust Belt cities, this story from Pittsburgh is distressing:

[Dr. Shalini Devi, a PhD from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (one of the premier engineering institutes in India),] had been a Post Doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh but lost her job five years earlier, and subsequently lost contact with her family and friends. No one knew of her status. She had saved $46,000 while working and she used that money to stay in her apartment in Shadyside for five years until her money was depleted. She even stopped taking the bus so that she could stretch her money further. Her sole activity was to go to Oakland to the Indian grocery store and carry bags of grocery back to her apartment.

Educated immigrants fall through the cracks all the time and Rust Belt cities, struggling to attract foreign born migrants, appear ambivalent about the situation. This is a mistake. The ability to fight off the rising populist sentiments will pay great dividends once the recovery begins.

Unfortunately, stopping brain drain is the more common response to shrinking talent pools. The Tech Belt has some tremendous assets in place to lead the charge for a more proactive talent management strategy. But these few voices need more support if we are to revive the economies of our shrinking cities. Can Hamilton save Pittsburgh?

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