During the peak COVID years, Canada saw immigration rates plummet by more than 45%. As the pandemic winds down, how can this vital source of essential talent be restarted? -- DONNA CHAN
In 2021, Canada clocked its lowest rate of economic and population growth since 1916. Immigration rates plummeted by some 45 percent, while domestic birthrates stagnated. As a result, there’s a noticeable pinch in the labor market, with shortages of skilled and essential workers across the country.
This pinch is a problem. For many decades, Canada has relied on a steady flow of incoming workers to keep the economic engines running. Millions come as students, temporary workers, refugees and skilled immigrants each year, through a wide variety of programming. COVID disrupted the whole system, even with the government placing a strong set of incentives in place in the latter half of 2021 to try to address the drop off.
The challenge is what to do to get the flow of people going again. A particular area of emphasis is on essential workers – nurses, caregivers, truckers, and food processors. Immigrants looking for a foothold in Canadian society have traditionally filled these roles at high rates, with some 30 to 40 percent of all roles in these industries going to foreign-born workers. Now, as many of these roles go unfilled, Canada must make adjustments to return to full staffing levels.
EXPAND CREDENTIAL RECOGNITION PROGRAMS
One of the biggest challenges for incoming workers is bringing their true qualifications into the light. The degrees and certifications they earned in their home country are often not readily recognized here in Canada, leaving many immigrants forced to take work that fails to make appropriate use of their skills.
Obviously, this puts the worker at an economic disadvantage. However, it’s also detrimental to Canada as a whole. Who really benefits when a dentist is working as a truck driver, or a skilled aesthetician waits tables? It’s not actually doing businesses any favors to have dramatically overqualified workers in roles. These employees are frequently bored, frustrated, and dissatisfied – if they’re visas permit it and the opportunity arises, they’ll bolt for another employer, especially if that employer acknowledges their skills.
How can Canada work to remedy this situation? It’s not always comfortable to blindly accept overseas documentation, especially for roles where knowledge and training can change the course of human lives. Instead, Canada could develop competency based testing, allowing incoming residents to demonstrate the full range of their skills without depending on the validation of a foreign degree. This could qualify them both for higher points-based immigration schemes and also for positions more suitable for their abilities.
OFFER MORE FLEXIBILITY TO CHANGE JOBS
Even as Trudeau’s administration expanded the essential workers immigration parameters during the pandemic, immigrants were still often required to remain with their sponsoring employer. This can create opportunities for migrant workers without connections or a robust support system to be exploited, or to discover too late that the job environment is not a good fit for them.
Shifting the laws would permit more new immigrants to change employers during their early months and years in the country. This can help workers to “right fit” themselves more swiftly into the Canadian workforce. It would also allow workers to build broader industry connections as they moved between firms, increasing the likelihood of smooth integration within Canadian society.
Further, since many immigrants are of an entrepreneurial bent, this flexibility would also allow them to leave their employers to start their own companies. Currently, according to reports from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, immigrants represent 33 percent of all business owners with paid employees, showing how this group can become a major economic force if allowed to develop in this way.
WIDEN THE PATH TO CITIZENSHIP FOR ESSENTIAL WORKERS
Along with improving credential recognition processes and allowing workers to change jobs once they’ve arrived, Canada could also be doing more to widen the path to citizenship for essential workers. Though that pathway was temporarily enhanced in the second half of 2021, given Canada’s critical need for more essential workers it seems unwise that such programs should end (especially since many of the expansions still had firm caps on numbers allowed to participate, which were in some cases as low as 500 persons!)
After all, immigration is not something a person takes lightly, especially during unusual times in the world. While Canada is an extremely popular destination among migrating communities, these workers do have other choices and many of those choices are also offering COVID-related incentives. Citizenship, rather than mere work permits, is a very attractive inducement to keeping Canada as a first choice destination.
Canada needs a steady flow of immigrants and temporary residents to keep its essential sectors operating smoothly. With the sharp decline in human movement brought about by COVID and the world’s reaction to this threat, Canada no longer has the incoming numbers that it needs for many key professions.
To restart the flow of talented and essential workers alike, Canada can do more to make the country an attractive destination. Widening the path to citizenship for temporary workers and visitors in the essential professions is a good start. So, too, is offering these workers more flexibility in the jobs they hold while in the country. Finally, expanding the opportunity for foreign-trained workers to get their credentials validated and their skills accepted in Canada solves a major problem for workers and employers alike.
Will it be enough? Time will tell. The current early incentives have boosted immigration numbers noticeably, though they still sit below pre-pandemic rates. However, by doing everything possible to make Canada a first choice destination, it is possible to increase the odds that workers with choices will make their next home in Canada.