Khan: Needed, a national employment policy for Canada’s immigrant population

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There is a major discrepancy between the expertise (and expectations) immigrants bring with them and how Canada positions itself to be able to absorb that expertise.

This is the overall understanding of several reports published over the last year that studied employment inequity in the labour market. These reports, focusing mainly on Ontario – still the most popular destination for new immigrants – show that immigrant populations are some of the most underemployed in Canada.

This is clearly related to policy formulation. Or lack of it. For Canada, which relies heavily on immigration to seal the cracks in its fast-aging economy, providing new immigrants of working age with opportunities that make immediate use of their expertise, is the smart policy to pursue.

But is this happening? The evidence shows, not that much.

The Express Entry System for instance, which was introduced in 2014 to better align immigration to skill-sets, was meant to ensure that those who came to Canada did so with the benefit of existing employment opportunities upon arrival. However, a study conducted by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in 2016 found that the “Canada first” strategy for immigration had been overtaken by the “Canadians first” policy.

Findings from the 2018 Ottawa Business Growth Survey, likewise, show that among Ottawa’s working-age population, those born in Canada have a four per cent unemployment rate, while recent immigrants with the same level of education have a 13 per cent unemployment rate.

While some of these reports dispel the myth that it is only newcomers who have to struggle in the job market, it is still those who migrate to Canada who largely experience barriers to employment.

It is still those who migrate to Canada who largely experience barriers to employment.

This is a matter of concern given that Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada recently announced a plan to admit more than one million immigrants by 2021. Over 70 per cent of these will fall under the under economic programs designed to address skills shortages and gaps in the labour market.

This comes without any accompanying policy as to how and where these immigrants will be employed and their skills applied. We know, for instance, that Canada has a shortage of doctors and nurses. But according to current accreditation policies, foreign-trained doctors have to spend up to five years to obtain a licence in Canada. The same applies to sectors such as engineering, IT and skilled trades.

Despite the lengthy discussion on the issue of foreign-accreditation in Canada, there is still no national employment policy that clearly acknowledges this gap and works to address it. Indeed, there is no clear policy on how immigrants can even reduce labour shortages in specific fields of work, given the systemic barriers they face, including racial and gender inequality. We simply know that we need more people in the workforce and that those people are on their way.

This deficiency is more glaring since it has been made clear that the reason behind increasing the number of immigrants admitted annually is directly linked to labour shortages and skill gaps.

Policy needs to dictate the practice of where, how and who will fill these labour shortages even before we cement an immigration target. At the moment, Canada’s immigration policies reflect Statistics Canada data on population gaps. What we really need if we want immigrants to succeed in Canada, and a more successful Canada as a result, is a policy that aligns immigration clearly with sectoral labour shortages and ways to overcome barriers to hiring, including race and gender and qualifications.

And this needs to be done across the board. Those in the high-skilled category for instance, perhaps the most undermined in this set, often find themselves having lost a minimum of five years of their professional lives in the struggle to gain equality with their counterparts. This is despite beginning their careers in Canada with far higher qualifications and experience than many native-born Canadians.

While Canada continues to raise slogans to recruit global talent, (one article from Bloomberg is titled “Canada Says, ‘Give Me Your MBAs, Your Entrepreneurs’”), the lack of policy intervention in streamlining employment opportunities for new immigrants means that the not-so-hidden cost of these discrepancies and systemic barriers will not just affect Canada in the long-term, but immigrants’ individual futures as well.

Themrise Khan is an independent policy researcher and analyst specializing in global development, social policy and migration.

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