| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Youtube RSS Feed


Welcoming back Toronto's top talent

How do we make it easier for Torontonians abroad to return to the City? That's the question Andrew Graham and Eva Wong Scanlan are trying to answer as part of Toronto Homecoming - an initiative of the Toronto City Summit Alliance's Emerging Leaders Network (ELN) that began in 2008.

Volunteering with the ELN's Economy Working Group, the pair had something in common: after studying and working abroad, they had both returned to Toronto and were using the skills and experience they had gained to contribute to local companies and initiatives. They were unique among their peers, many of whom had remained abroad despite a growing desire to return. This gave both of them personal motivation for the project.

"I have a lot of friends who are Torontonians who are still abroad and some of them are very talented people who would be great for the city," said Graham, who now works in finance at Nortel, "I wanted to dig into the questions of why they are away and what's preventing them from coming back."  Wong Scanlan now works for a church, "When I came back here after grad school, I realised that Toronto was an amazing city to live in, after living in all these other places."

Led by the duo, Toronto Homecoming began to gather data from two groups: those who remained abroad and had not yet returned, and those who had come home. Looking at these groups offered insight into why people stayed away and the obstacles those who returned faced in doing so. They partnered with ThinkLounge and a consultant from the Boston Consulting Group to design a research plan that included an online survey for both groups, and focus groups were conducted in Toronto, London, New York and San Francisco, using telepresence suites donated by Cisco. 

The results, outlined in their report "home or away: why toronto's next generation of leaders goes abroad, and why many won't come back", were clear. Participants felt that opportunity for career progression was the most important factor in deciding where to live, and for many, Toronto could not compete with other world cities. The Working Group's research showed that though Toronto scored high marks for liveability, it fell behind on career related factors, including presence of local research institutions, professional networks, and qualified human capital. The report quotes a San Francisco focus group participant who said, "A climate for innovation and entrepreneurship is simply not present in Toronto; if you want to be a major player or 'high flyer' in the global business world, you have to leave Toronto, it's as simple as that."

Similarly, the biggest challenges faced by those who had returned to Toronto after studying and working abroad had to do with career opportunities; returnees reported that employers in Toronto didn't value their international experience, and that without local networks, securing employment was difficult.

"When I left the US, I had offers from Amazon, Microsoft, and Google - but I had a hard time finding a job here," said one returnee. Another, after completing an MBA from Columbia University and working in advertising in New York, was told that she didn't understand the Canadian market and should be looking for internships. Combined with facing lower pay scales and job opportunities that are rarely advertised, returnees overwhelmingly felt that there were significant barriers for those wanting to return.

Despite these barriers, the surveys showed that Toronto was perceived as an attractive place to live. On factors such as work-life balance, leisure activities, and access to art and culture, Toronto rated at least as good as the cities in which the respondents lived. On multiculturalism, proximity to friends and family, and ability to raise a family, Toronto came out far ahead. The focus groups echoed these findings: "I could never do the things in New York that I do here...I have a house, I have a dog...I can get on my bike and ride for hours." The report also revealed that those who do return do so for the quality of life in Toronto, and to raise families.  Deborah Dalfen, a lawyer, returned to Toronto with her husband and two small children in 2005 from San Francisco.

"The city is a great balance," says Dalfen, now Director, Student Affairs at Torys LLP. "There are lots of residential neighbourhoods in close proximity to downtown, and there are great parks and schools, along with shows, concerts and great restaurants."

The Working Group concluded that if they could focus on the city's strengths, and help those who were abroad find appropriate job opportunities and network in their fields, they would be much more likely to return to the city. Overcoming these barriers is the foundation of the report's recommendations, and is driving the initiatives that Toronto Homecoming will be undertaking over the next year.

"What we learned from the research is that they were real barriers, and we wanted to figure out what we could do to make it easier for people to come back," says Graham.

In its initial stages, the project will focus on five major initiatives. First, Toronto Homecoming would like to connect people who would like to return with those who have already come back, creating an informal mentorship program. Second, the group is profiling returnees who have been successful in their return and encouraging Torontonians to share the videos (available on their website) with friends and family who may be thinking of returning. A signature event is also in the works that would provide opportunities for networking and informal introductions that would coincide with one of Toronto's major cultural events (Luminato or TIFF), in hopes of catching potential returnees while they are in town visiting friends and family. The group also plans to take advantage of the network that spawned the idea; because so many cited building networks as a major challenge, the group hopes to systematically connect returnees with the ELN as they come home.  Finally, Toronto Homecoming wants to improve attitudes about international experience in Toronto, beginning by partnering with executive recruiters and hiring managers to understand and address the issue.

Graham and Wong Scanlan say they know that the initiatives above are just the beginning and that attracting and retaining talent is a massive task. "In the longer term, we'd like there to be more specialised niches where Toronto is clearly world leading," says Graham. Having worked and studied in a number of cities abroad, both feel that Toronto is the place for them though they understand the attractions of working away from Toronto, and the difficult transition of returning home. Most importantly they are passionate about the city they live in.

For more about the Toronto Homecoming initiative or if you would like to get involved visit their website.

Tasleem Thawar is a Toronto based writer.
Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts

Related Content