Braindrain in reverse

It wasn't so long ago when legions of hotshots in advertising and marketing were fleeing Canada in droves for bigger prizes - better paying and more prestigious jobs - south of the border....

It wasn’t so long ago when legions of hotshots in advertising and marketing were fleeing Canada in droves for bigger prizes – better paying and more prestigious jobs – south of the border.

But the quickly cooling U.S. economy is sending a distinct chill through the country’s marketing sector, and an increasing number of Canadians working in the U.S. are now looking longingly at home.

So far, there are no hard figures. But it appears that the number of expats who have set their sights on coming back to Canada is on the rise.

Rick Chad, president of Chad Management Group, is one recruiter who has noticed the uptick.

”I definitely get way more queries from people with an interest in coming back,” Chad says. ”Sometimes it’s for a lifestyle change – they are at the senior level and want to be closer to their aging parents. But in this climate, there are more people who have been laid off. And even if they haven’t been laid off, there’s a real feeling of uncertainty out there.”

It’s little wonder. While Canada has seen some layoffs in the marketing industry in recent months, they pale by comparison with the swath cut through the ranks of companies in the U.S. As behemoths like Procter & Gamble and General Motors squeeze their marketing budgets, they wreak havoc on more than the media outlets where they place their ads – the carnage seeps into the agencies that create and deliver their messages, forcing them to make sweeping cutbacks.

Leo Burnett USA, for example, cut 12.5% of the 120-person staff at its technology group earlier this year. Those cuts followed the dismissal of an additional 200 workers, or 9%, of its staff – the biggest single layoff at the company in eight years. The cuts led the company’s chief executive to declare that recent days were some of the ”worst in my career…It’s a wild time in the industry.”

Likewise, FCB Worldwide laid off 12% of its San Francisco staff in May citing a soft technology sector as a reason. Add McCann-Erickson Worldwide, TBWA/ Chiat/ Day and DraftWorldwide to the list of major U.S. agencies that have recently downsized due to the economy. And the list goes on.

”It’s been a 360-degree turn,” says Susan Kirshenbaum of New York-based recruiters Greenberg Kirshenbaum. ”One Friday it was really busy, and by the next Monday it had completely dried up.”

She says it’s not surprising that Canadians would begin looking north for jobs given the lack of opportunities in the United States these days – particularly in previous marketing hotbeds like California and New York that have been hit hardest by the labour shakeout.

Heidi Ehlers, VP of creative services at Mandrake, Toronto, isn’t certain the economy can fully explain the recent surge of expat interest in Canada. But she, too, is noticing the change. Queries and resumes from south of the border began to arrive on her desk three months ago, she says.

”A year ago, you couldn’t find anybody who wanted jobs…If they wanted a job, they had three job offers. The ones who everybody wants to hire still have jobs. But there are more qualified people out there.”

Many now looking for work had plied their trade in dot-com industry, which has been in a tailspin for months, she notes. But she is also receiving calls from across the spectrum in marketing, advertising, sales and promotion.

Chad says Canadians working in the U.S. are often faced with a particularly vexing problem if they have been laid off. Typically they are working in the United States on an F1 visa that allows them to work only for the company which originally sponsored them. So when they are laid off, they have no choice but to return to Canada.

The popular F1 visa also requires Canadians working in the U.S. to return to Canada after four years and apply for a visa again if they haven’t managed to get a green card, which also may help to explain why there has been renewed interest in returning home, he says.

However, many may be discouraged from coming home because marketing jobs in Canada have also become scarce.

‘Jobs are pretty far and few between. It’s definitely tightening up quite a bit,’ says Doug Lowe, SVP and chief of staff at Toronto-based Young & Rubicam. ‘Very few agencies are adding jobs these days.’

On the other hand, Rob Sandler, co-managing director at Grey Interactive, Toronto, says Canadian online specialists out of work because of the U.S. dot-com crash can still find work in Canada.

‘We’ve seen some really talented people across the board looking for work,’ he says. ‘At the end of the day, when their [stock] options aren’t worth anything and their credentials are filled with sites that no longer exist, people are looking at Canada. There’s still a lot of work going on…it’s scaled back slightly because of the economic climate, but there are jobs.’

Mike Boydell, president of in Toronto, says the interest in returning to Canada extends beyond the marketing sector. He says there are more Canadians working in the U.S. looking for jobs at home in all sectors, which is a good thing because there’s a shortage of talent here at home. Some 300,000 jobs for knowledge workers went unfilled last year, according to a study done by the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses.

Boydell is also seeing more interest globally from workers in Europe and beyond looking for jobs in Canada.

The recent labour shakeout here has brought expectations back to reality, he adds. ‘Employers are saying, ‘Thank God.’ A lot of people had abnormal expectations around salaries and things like flextime. If the employer didn’t meet them, the candidate could simply walk across the street because there were three or four other job offers.’

Still, he says candidates looking for work in Canada should remain optimistic, because employers here are always looking for bright and talented people.