(This article has been translated into French.)

An aging population and declining fertility rates in Canada mean immigrants are critical to the country’s economic development and growth. Yet, while our immigration policy tends to emphasize recruiting people who are highly skilled, many immigrants are unable to utilize the very skills that were their ticket to Canada once they arrive here.

Ensuring Canada as the destination of choice for international talent – workers, entrepreneurs and students – is key to our national success. It’s important to understand the economic advantages of immigrants, their contributions to culture and communities.

Recognizing the massive role newcomers played during the pandemic as front-line workers keeping us fed and cared for – often in jobs that no one else wanted – is a good place to start. The stereotypes, discrimination and hate targeting newcomers – particularly those who are racialized, Black or Muslim –also needs to be challenged.

Creating an environment to harness the talents of immigrants requires action on multiple levels, including the need to properly assess their skills and to streamline processes to remove barriers along the road to permanent residency.

Immigrants generally have higher levels of education but lower rates of employment and pay – fully 44 per cent of internationally educated engineers in Ontario are under-employed. Some professionals – for example physicians – face nearly insurmountable barriers to practice across the country.

Under-employment is more pervasive among recent immigrants – “newcomers” here less than five years – in Canada compared to the U.S. (42 per cent vs. 29 per cent) and is estimated to cost Canada $50 billion in gross domestic product (GDP) per year.

In spite of the talk about the skills gap, it seems obvious that many employers are looking for talent in all the wrong places. Most employers rely on informal networks to recruit staff and when they advertise jobs and applicants with “foreign sounding” last names are far less likely to get interviews. Additionally, country of origin has a significant impact on credential recognition. Immigrants with degrees from Europe, the United States or Oceania are far more likely to get jobs commensurate with their education.

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Immigrants are also critical to innovation, as well as economic growth. They are over-represented among entrepreneurs – some because of necessity, being “pushed” by lack of opportunity in the labour market into self-employment. Some move to self-employment in precarious gig work, although others are “pulled,” meaning they would prefer entrepreneurship even if a traditional job was offered.

Immigrant entrepreneurs, particularly those who are Black, face additional barriers in accessing capital in spite of the fact that they are more likely to export, to innovate and grow. In the current environment, many can choose to come to Canada or go to other countries. It is critical for Canada to not just attract, but also retain, international talent.

The problems associated with that are numerous. For example, the more educated the newcomer is, the less satisfied they are likely to be with the employment supports they receive from settlement services. Employers are often frustrated by the processes and fragmentation of services and service providers. Many companies are commited to hiring immigrants but find it challenging to identify the right candidates. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in particular have limited resources and patience to navigate the system for relevant information and services, as well as having to work with multiple service providers.

Creating an environment that harnesses the talents of immigrants requires action on multiple levels.

At the organizational level, policies and practices by educational institutions, settlement agencies and community groups, as well as employers, are key.

Confronting the biases of Canadians

We also need to address the attitudes and behaviours of Canadians, encouraging them to confront their biases and to serve as allies to support newcomers.

At the societal level, our immigration policies need a refresh. The link between labour market demand and the criteria for so-called “economic” immigrants should be strengthened. Recruitment and selection of “economic class” immigrants should align better with employer needs. Some of the existing pilot programs in this area are promising but still cumbersome and do not scale.

For example, the targets set for skilled trades are nowhere near what employers want. There is continued unmet demand for general labourers, heavy-equipment operators, farm workers and food processors. Yet opportunities for these workers to come to Canada are both limited and ripe for exploitation. As well, the demand for nurses’ aides and personal support workers has also increased dramatically, but immigration levels for those workers have not kept pace.

The process for permanent resident admission should be streamlined for economic entrants under express entry, provincial nominee programs and other approaches. Admission should also be made easier for temporary foreign workers, international students and others who can help meet labour market needs.

There are also remnants of policies that are just odd. For example, in spite of our effort to find ways to retain international students by fast-tracking them to permanent residency, we still require student visa applicants to commit to return to their home country. Not only does this send mixed messages – “want you! don’t want you!” – but results in bizarre “catch 22s.” We have examples of Afghan students who were welcomed to Canada a year ago but then were turned away – in spite of successfully completing part of their studies – because officials did not believe they would return to their home country.

Once newcomers arrive in Canada, there needs to be better recognition of credentials and bridging to their professions or trades. Employment is critical not just to the economic well-being of newcomers but also to their sense of belonging and mental health. We need to focus on challenging current barriers to entry for professionals and people in the skilled trades. New Ontario legislation is an important start but it does not include medical professionals. We need to prioritize employer-centred innovative employment and training programs, such as work-integrated learning or workplace language training.

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It’s not just big corporations that hold the key for employment. Small businesses account for almost 69 per cent of private sector employment in Canada. More work needs to be done to help them become more inclusive in their hiring and employment practices.

Provincial governments and their regulatory bodies responsible for workplace hiring and practices also need to see themselves as facilitators, instead of just gatekeepers. These organizations can help guide newcomers into regulated occupations by removing unjustifiable barriers. Government policies need to be co-ordinated if we are serious about attracting the best and the brightest. The preparations for prospective immigrants to come to, and settle in, Canada should start long before their arrival.

Much work is needed to put employers at the centre of employment programs. Too often, training programs designed for newcomers have no real link to jobs. Such programs should build upon individual skills to help newcomers understand the labour market.

At the same time, employers need to reconsider their approaches to recruitment; to commit to eroding bias and barriers in their processes; to build more inclusive workplaces; and to harness the talent of newcomers. New approaches which tie investments in language training, settlement and training to employment outcomes are promising. Innovative employment and training programs that produce results should be given priority that respond to identified needs. These include work-integrated learning or workplace language training.

Employer-centred programs are most effective. Organizations such as the Immigrant Employment Councils (IECs) in various provinces treat employers as partners in programmatic design and delivery. New intermediaries – such as industry associations, community services, post-secondary education institutions and consultants – focus on training for high-demand skills and placements. These programs along with technology-enabled job-matching platforms, such as Magnet, have produced measurable results. Recognizing entrepreneurship as a pathway to economic inclusion should be part of the mix.

Collaboration required to break down barriers

Finding ways to incentivize collaboration and sharing across sectors is also critical. Thinking of ways to ensure support for newcomers in navigating services – through, for example, more-focused one-stop shopping for access to services and support in multiple languages – will help. New community roundtables and portals are definitely an improvement but need better intelligence and navigation to provide the entry door that newcomers need. Increased collection of disintegrated data, evaluation of impacts of government-funded programs, best practices and value for money will help ascertain what works for whom.

Understanding the barriers on the demand side with employers is also key to better utilizing the talent we bring to Canada. Employers must rethink the ways they recruit, select, develop and promote talent. Increasingly, there is evidence that an inclusive workplace culture which values the diversity, perspectives and talents that newcomers bring will benefit the bottom line.

Newcomers are not just important to help meeting human resources needs. There is ample evidence that they contribute to business success in many ways – innovative research and development; new product and service design; improved access to global markets; better service for an increasingly diverse customer base; and more. The evidence is strong that most employers with experience in hiring newcomers will continue to hire newcomers. It’s opening the door that is often the first challenge. Of course, we also need to ensure that newcomers have access to good working conditions, health care, education and protections to prevent exploitation, abuse and health hazards .

Because at the end of the day, the success of immigrants becomes Canada’s success.

This article is part of the Future of Work and Skills Training special feature series.

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Guang-Ying Mo
Guang-Ying Mo is the acting director of research at the Diversity Institute, Ryerson University.
Patrick MacKenzie
Patrick MacKenzie is the chief executive officer of the Immigrant Employment Council of BC.

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