Declining Brain Drain? Share of Canadian Job Searches Going to the US Down 36% Since Mid-2016

US opportunities in academia, science, and tech still appeal to Canadian job seekers.

Key points

  • The share of Canadian job searches on Indeed going to the US has fallen 36% since mid-2016. US-bound searches accounted for about 1.9% of all searches by Canadian job seekers in the second quarter of 2019, down from 2.9% in mid-2016.
  • While the less favourable US immigration climate might have contributed to the decline, increasing opportunities in the Canadian job market may mean that fewer Canadians feel the need to look south for work.
  • The US still commands a meaningful portion of Canadian job seeker interest in several fields susceptible to “brain drain”, including academia, science, and tech. 
  • Greater opportunity and higher pay — along with preferential visa treatment — stand out as likely reasons why the US is more appealing for some roles and not others. 

In 2017, just under one million people living in the US were born in Canada. Stories of Canadians moving south have long been of interest north of the border, and not just about the latest Canadian celebrity to make it big. There’s also a concern about “brain drain,” with fears that too many of Canada’s best and brightest leave for the US. 

Indeed job search data suggest Canadian brain drain pressures have eased in recent years. The share of total searches by job seekers in Canada for work in the US fell from around 2.9% to just below 1.9% between mid-2016 and the second quarter of 2019, a 36% drop. The share of total clicks by Canadian job seekers on US positions posted a similar decline.

There isn’t a clear driver for why relative search interest in US jobs has waned. The harsher immigration climate in the US could be playing a role, but declines this year — over two years since the 2016 US election — suggest other factors are also at play. In particular, as opportunities in the Canadian job market have grown, some Canadians might feel less need to search elsewhere for work.

While the share of Canadian job seeker activity heading to the US is down, America still commands a meaningful portion of Canadian interest for certain roles. Many of these jobs are in fields that are prime candidates for “brain drain”, such as academia, science, and tech. 

US-bound click shares tend to be greater for roles with relatively more postings and higher posted salaries in the US than in Canada. This suggests that greater opportunity and pay are important drivers of Canadians searching for work in the US. However, other factors — including differences in the ease of securing a US work visa — may also help explain why the appeal of US postings differs from one job to another. 

The share of total job searches to the US by workers in Canada down more than a third

Employers post jobs on Indeed in over 60 countries and each has its own landing page. We tracked the share of searches by job seekers with IP addresses in Canada for postings in the US starting in August 2016. 

The share of Canadian searches on Indeed going to the US started to fall a few months after the US election in the first half of 2017. It then plateaued over most of 2018, before the decline resumed again this year. Geographically, the fall was similar across Ontario, B.C., Alberta, and Quebec, while the share of US-bound clicks declined in several sectors, including health, tech, and finance.

A natural question is whether the decline in US search share is related to a more hostile immigration climate. The share of searches going to the States dropped in February 2017, shortly after the inauguration of President Trump, and plateaued after that, suggesting the less-friendly immigration climate may have discouraged Canadian job seekers. That said, it’s less clear how tighter US immigration policy might have contributed to the more recent decline in US search share this year. 

Moreover, the decline in US search share has occurred as job opportunities have expanded in Canada. Since mid-2016, job postings on Indeed have grown faster in Canada than in the US, a pattern also evident in government job market data on both sides of the border. This growth has meant more options for domestic job seekers, and consequently potentially less need to search for work outside the country.

At the same time, different pay trends in the two countries probably don’t explain the decline in US search share. Measures of wage growth in the US since 2016, such as the wage and salary component of the Employment Cost Index, have outpaced Canadian indicators, like the Bank of Canada’s Wage-Common indicator.  

High-paying US knowledge economy jobs still attract Canadians 

Clicks on US postings accounted for about 1.3% of Canadian job seeker activity from July 2018 to June 2019. But, for some roles, the share of US-bound clicks was considerably higher. Many of these jobs are in fields considered part of the “knowledge economy”, including academia, science, and tech.

Over the past year, 25% of Canadian job seeker clicks on junior faculty roles like assistant professor and postdoctoral fellow went to the US. Canada-to-US clicks also accounted for around 10% of Canadian interest in postings for scientists and various types of engineers. The US is also relatively appealing to Canadians interested in several finance and executive positions, like investment banking analyst and vice president.

The appeal of US finance jobs may be one reason why the New York City area stands out as the largest recipient of Canadian clicks among US metros over the past year. The tech-heavy San Francisco and Seattle metro areas came in third and fifth respectively. In general, Canadian job seekers show particular interest in high-paying metros on the coasts. Still, Detroit, Windsor’s neighbor, lands fourth on the list, while other border metros like Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls, New York, and Bellingham, Washington (ranking 21st and 40th respectively), are also popular with Canadian job seekers relative to their sizes.

Searching for greater opportunities and higher pay

A few patterns seem to help explain why some US positions rather than others attract Canadian job seekers more. First, US click share tends to be higher for roles that are more prevalent in the US than in Canada. For some jobs, postings are relatively rare in Canada, but more common in the US. As a result, Canadian job seekers are likely to find more opportunities if they look to the States. For instance, postings for internships in the US dwarf those in Canada. In general, the ten roles with the highest US-bound click shares also accounted for greater shares of US job postings than Canadian postings.

Second, relative interest is also greater for US roles with particularly high average posted salaries compared with the same positions in Canada, especially for jobs that already pay well by Canadian standards. For example, while job postings for machine learning engineers and investment bankers are relatively abundant in Canada, their average posted salaries carry a substantial premium in the US. The reputation these jobs have for high salaries in the US is probably an important motive for looking for work there.

Greater relative opportunities and higher salaries might be important, but they can only go so far in explaining why certain US jobs are most appealing to Canadians. Other factors may be occupation-specific. For instance, visa requirements are less onerous for Canadians in such fields as engineering and the sciences, which could spur more Canadians to look to the US. Meanwhile, in finance, tests like the Certified Financial Analyst exam are standardized internationally, which may facilitate movement across borders.   

Declining US search activity could mean less brain drain

Cross-border job search is just one facet of migration — emigrating takes a lot more work than just searching for a job. That said, in other contexts, Indeed job search data has been a useful real-time indicator of cross-country movement, evident when official migration data is eventually released. Overall, there doesn’t appear to be much growth in the number of Canadians moving to America. The Canadian-born population in the US has been fairly flat since the early 2000s, ticking up in 2017, but still down 2% from its 2015 level. 

This trend is broadly consistent with the declining share of Indeed Canadian job searches going to the US since mid-2016. One factor potentially driving the decline is that expanding opportunities for work in Canada have reduced the need for some job seekers to look south. A less-friendly US immigration environment could also be playing a role, but the effects aren’t as striking as changes in US-bound searches from India and certain Latin American countries.    

Even though overall job search data suggests brain drain pressures have moderated, the US is still a popular destination for Canadian job seekers interested in academia, science, tech, and finance. As long as high-end US salaries carry a substantial premium over top-tier salaries in Canada, these patterns are not likely to change, adding to the challenge Canadian businesses face recruiting top talent. Still, the flow of workers between Canada and the US is an important feature of the close economic and cultural integration of the two countries. Over the long term, both countries can benefit from the diffusion of ideas and innovation that a steady cross-border flow of workers fosters. 


We tracked searches and clicks by job seekers on Indeed in Canada for positions in the US from August 2016 to July 2019. When calculating the US-bound share of clicks by job title, we limit the data to English-language postings to ensure comparability across countries. Tech, finance, and healthcare sectors are defined based on job titles of individual postings. Clicks from Canada on jobs without a designated metropolitan statistical area are not included when calculating each metro area’s share of total US-bound clicks.

For this post, we explored the factors behind the variation in US-bound click-shares across job titles by regressing the log of the US-bound click-shares by job title by each job’s relative share of total postings in the US compared with Canada, and the log of their average posted annual salaries in each country. Each variable is statistically significant at the 1% level with each regression with an adjusted R-square of 55% to 63%, depending on the frequency-weights used. 

Data on trends in the Canadian-born population in the US comes from the American Community Survey’s microfiles. 

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