Canada Replaces U.S. as Top Work Destination

Global study shows pandemic reset workers’ attitudes toward relocation

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer April 8, 2021
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​Canada is now the most desirable destination for international workers, overtaking the United States for the first time, according to a new study of more than 209,000 people from 190 countries.

The research was conducted in late 2020 by management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group and The Network, a global alliance of recruitment websites. The study on worldwide mobility trends has been conducted since 2014.

"The most striking shift in our survey is the fall of the U.S. from the top spot," said Allison Bailey, senior partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group. "The U.S. has fallen to second in the rankings … due to an inconsistent pandemic response, the adoption of more nationalistic policies, and social unrest. Canada and Australia [ranked third] are similar to the U.S. in having English as an official language, but Canada and Australia have both done a far better job of pandemic management. They are also seen as having better social systems and more open cultures than the U.S."

Interestingly, the U.S. remains the most desirable destination when respondents are asked about working for a foreign employer remotely versus having to move to a country where the employer is located, suggesting that U.S. employment is still attractive.

"The question then becomes why would workers rather go to Canada than to the U.S.?" asked Lynn Shotwell, SHRM-SCP, president and CEO of Worldwide ERC, the trade association for the global mobility industry, based in Arlington, Va. "One reason is that Canada is making a tremendous effort to reach out to and welcome immigrants. They have expanded the number of high-skilled visas available while the U.S. has not been as welcoming during the past four years. Our system has been painful for immigrants to navigate for many years, but the last four years under President Trump have been particularly tough."

Shotwell said that the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic is surely another factor in the study's results. "The U.S. is now leading the world in vaccinations, but we had a really inconsistent situation in 2020, creating a negative impression around the world. If you add in the social unrest that we have had, and the divisions, it makes people less willing to consider the U.S. as a place to go."

The changes to the list of top destinations largely reflect different countries' success in managing COVID-19. Almost all of the countries that have fallen lower on the list, including the U.S. and several European countries, have struggled with the pandemic, while countries that have managed the public health crisis more effectively, such as Canada and in Asia, have risen in the rankings.

Attitudes toward the world's most attractive cities for work largely corresponded with the country data. London retained its spot as the top city to relocate to, but New York, Rome and Madrid all lost ground, while Tokyo; Singapore; and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, gained. Although Canada is the world's current top work destination, no Canadian cities are in the top 10. Canada's highest-ranked city is Toronto, which places 14th in the survey.

"There has been general globalization of the labor market—it's not only Western destinations that are attractive anymore," Bailey said.

Interest in Working Abroad Falls

The other major finding from the report is that the proportion of workers willing to move to another country for work declined from 64 percent in 2014 and 57 percent in 2018 to 50 percent in 2020. Respondents in nearly every country in the world said they were less willing to relocate.

"The drop is rooted in both nationalistic immigration policies and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic," Bailey said. "The travel restrictions that have come and gone during the pandemic have had an impact on people's attitudes. The trend toward remote work has also affected relocation willingness. In some cases, foreign employers have been willing to offer applicants a job without requiring them to work in any company office. To get the benefits of a foreign job without having to relocate may, to some people, be the best option of all."

Shotwell agreed, adding that "people are reconsidering a lot of things about their lives right now. In the same way that we have seen a tremendous amount of relocation within the United States—from cities to more rural areas, to be closer to family—more people around the world may be looking to stay closer to family and community for personal connection. Especially if you can have access to remote work, why wouldn't you want to stay closer to home?"

The Future of Cross-Border Work

Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they are interested in cross-border remote work—staying in one's home country while working for a foreign employer.

"Cross-border remote work is an opportunity for companies to build new talent pools and increase diversity, without having to worry about relocation costs or visas," Bailey said. "For workers, it is an option to improve their careers without having to take the personal risk of relocating."

She added that companies face some challenges in offering remote international employment, including handling regulatory complexity, managing collaboration across time zones, adjusting salary policies, managing data protection and ensuring remote workers are still integrated into the corporate culture.

Shotwell noted that even though remote work is gaining interest, many people will still need to relocate for work, so HR must think about what to offer to entice people to move. "A big issue is what is the extra duty of care that companies will have to provide to the employee and his or her family to give assurances that, if there is another health crisis or national lockdowns, they will be taken care of," she said.

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