Knocking down barriers faced by new immigrants to Canada
Much ink has been spilt on the difficulties faced by newcomers to Canada and, in particular, the challenges of integration into the labour market. The barriers they face, including inadequate language skills and credential recognition issues, are reflected in the widening gaps in labour market outcomes relative to native-born Canadians. This has quickly become one of Canada’s most pressing public policy challenges as immigrants now account for more than 1-in-5 Canadians. And with the oncoming retirement of the baby boomer generation, immigration’s role in the Canadian economy will only grow. Thus, addressing these integration issues is crucial for the long-term prosperity of all Canadians and would yield enormous benefits. For instance, simply closing the gap in employment rates between newcomers and native-born Canadians would equate to approximately 370,000 additional people working. Fortunately, a radical overhaul of our immigration system is not required to achieve significant positive change. Indeed, Canada’s system is often looked to as a model by the many other countries that also struggle with the same demographic changes. But while many of the pieces appear to be in place, some need to be added and/or rearranged to make it all fit together. We identify two critical areas of reform: the federal and provincial selection processes and the network of immigrant settlement services. The opportunities available to reap efficiencies suggest that there are adequate resources in the system already, an important conclusion in light of a fiscally constrained environment. The various federal and provincial programs through which skilled immigrants are admitted, the Federal Skilled Worker (FSW), the Provincial Nominee (PN), and the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program, are all seemingly designed to address short-term labour demand. This has created significant overlap, while leaving the job market’s long-term needs unaddressed. The needs of employers could be much better met by a more coordinated approach. The PN and TFW programs are much better positioned to identify and respond to the rapidly changing needs of the labour market and they should remain focused on short-term needs. However, the PN programs could benefit greatly from adopting similar standards and practices. In turn, the FSW program should shift towards meeting the job market’s longer-term demand, with a heightened focus on language proficiency. This will require a labour market information system that is able to identify current and future high-demand occupations and a systematic, transparent method of changing the eligible occupations for the program. A minimum language threshold for principal applicants would also help ensure better labour market outcomes for newcomers. In light of the poor economic outcomes of newcomers, many organizations providing settlement services have popped up over the years. However, the patchwork way in which services are delivered, such as language training programs, has resulted in uneven outcomes for newcomers. Many have fallen between the cracks. Newcomers could benefit through a more integrated approach to service delivery in which agencies adopt similar best practices. Along the same vein as the provincial nominee programs, the federal government could consider a devolved settlement funding arrangement in which the provinces are given a lump sum of settlement funds. Having a better idea of what services best suit the needs of the immigrants present in their own jurisdictions, the provinces are better placed to fund particular organizations to optimize service delivery and outcomes. This standardization must apply, in particular, to language programs and credential recognition services given the importance of the two to success in the labour market. Consideration could be given to standardizing the curriculums for federally/provincially-funded language programs to a single model which has measured levels of success. For credential recognition, a longer-term goal would be to have national regulatory bodies for all regulated occupations and harmonized equivalency requirements. However, this may not be possible in the near-term given the complexities of the accreditation process. Another potential solution would be to develop and expand the roles of fairness commissioners across all provinces and more aggressively pursue mutual recognition agreements.The federal government should also expand the Canadian Immigrant Integration Program, which provides pre-arrival services, to more countries around the world and consider setting up a similar integration portal here in Canada. Such a portal would be used to extend upon what was achieved at the pre-arrival stage. Newcomers could find out where to go to obtain the specific services, databases of immigrant skills and experience could be created, and businesses could use it to connect to the skilled professionals that they need. Lastly, more frequent data is needed on the integration of newcomers. Much of the current analysis on the poor labour market outcomes of immigrants was taken from a single survey conducted over a 5-year period which happens to coincide with the tech bust. At the time, Canada was admitting large inflows of immigrants with IT-related credentials, which may have skewed the overall picture. Ongoing information is needed to truly assess both the economic outcomes of newcomers, and our efforts in addressing this issue. Canada admits hundreds of thousands of highly-educated, highly-skilled immigrants each year to meet labour demand or to fill skills gaps. And yet, any reason for participating in skilled immigration is rendered null and void if those immigrants ultimately take lower paying jobs unrelated to their training because of the labour market barriers that they face. Solving the issues immigrants currently confront is crucial to our long-term prosperity and we have all of the pieces necessary to do so. At the moment, we have fit many of those pieces together in a patchwork way. Now, we need to organize those remaining pieces and complete the puzzle.