Canada Will Lose Highly Skilled Immigrants Without a Proper Retention Strategy
The notion that Canada is a place of opportunity for immigrants is widely upheld and celebrated. This has led Canadians in a range of important positions in both the private and public sectors to become lackadaisical about acknowledging and addressing the very real challenges that many immigrants face when trying to enter and advance in the Canadian labour market. Canada must accept that the competition for skilled migrants is growing. If immigrants cannot find what they are looking for in Canada, they may consider alternative destinations where they believe they will have more opportunities to put their skills and expertise to work.
“Canada has been less successful at using immigrants’ skills, with implications for the future retention of the immigrants it attracts.“
Being able to hire immigrants from a global talent pool presents huge advantages to employers and the Canadian economy more generally. Immigrants bring relevant skills and experience (including those which may be lacking in Canada). They also contribute to the diversity of the Canadian labour market and society. But a global labour market increasingly geared toward the knowledge economy also means that Canada is now in competition with other countries to attract and retain immigrants with similar skillsets, education and experience. While the country has been able to attract large numbers of highly skilled migrants, Canada has been less successful at using immigrants’ skills, with implications for the future retention of the immigrants it attracts.
The majority of immigrants enter Canada through economic immigration programs that value their real and potential contributions to the Canadian labour market. According to data collected through the National Household Survey, immigrants hold one-third of degrees in Canada, while representing only about 25% of the population. Despite Canada’s success in attracting large numbers of highly educated immigrants, many immigrants struggle to find jobs commensurate with their qualifications and previous work experience. A study carried out by the World Education Services in 2019 found that just over 39% of immigrants “had jobs with duties mainly similar in type and complexity to their pre-immigration jobs.”
“On average it takes immigrants more than 10 years to catch up in terms of earnings.”
In admitting highly educated immigrants into the country, the Canadian government hopes that immigrants will eventually find their way to success in the Canadian labour market, even if they do not immediately find a job in their field. Statistics show, however, that on average it takes immigrants more than 10 years to catch up in terms of earnings. Not all immigrants are willing to wait that long. A recent survey carried out by Léger for the Institute of Canadian Citizenship found that as many as 30% of immigrants between the ages of 18 and 34 are considering a departure from Canada in the next two years. While the reasons for this are nuanced and overlapping, the survey revealed that many immigrants are dissatisfied with Canada because of concerns around affordability and governance, as well as the professional challenges they face. Moreover, there is a perception on the part of the immigrants surveyed that Canadians do not adequately understand the challenges immigrants face in the country.
The negative experiences that immigrants commonly face in Canada are largely due to systemic barriers. It is a well-known fact that many immigrants struggle to have their foreign credentials and skills recognized in Canada, especially those in licensed professions. Parallel to this, job seekers are often required to have Canadian experience before they can get a job, but this is hard to do without having the requisite experience, creating what is commonly referred to as a “catch-22.”
“Canada must take concrete actions to address the challenges that immigrants face upon trying to enter and advance within the Canadian labour market.”
These challenges are compounded by hiring processes that tend to favour more established Canadians. Employers and hiring managers may have an interest in hiring immigrants but are unsure how to assess and utilize immigrant talent. They may also be reluctant to hire immigrants due to risk aversion. Some employers are concerned that immigrants will not have the right skills and experience to perform well in their jobs and would prefer not to take a chance. In some cases, immigrants may be subject to employer bias or even outright hiring discrimination. In order to remain competitive and be the first place that immigrants want to go to and stay, Canada must take concrete actions to address the challenges that immigrants face upon trying to enter and advance within the Canadian labour market.
The underuse of immigrant skills and experience is a multidimensional problem that impacts a number of different stakeholders. Hence, various levels of government, educational institutions, professional bodies, employers and settlement agencies must work together to find solutions. There should be opportunities for these different players to come together and engage in open dialogue so that they can better understand one another’s needs and concerns and find ways to overcome them. Working in silos will not lead to the kind of systemic change that is needed to improve immigrants’ labour market outcomes. Canada needs new approaches and strategies, as well as the commitment of multiple stakeholders to bring about real change.
One of the necessary steps forward will undoubtedly be a willingness to be more innovative when assessing how immigrants can demonstrate and then use their existing education and skills in the Canadian labour market. This may involve developing new means of assessing skills and competencies beyond traditional approaches to evaluating foreign credentials and work experience. It may also involve raising awareness of the value of hiring immigrants and making employers more aware of everything they have to offer. Ultimately, this will require a shift in mindset and a move away from hiring practices that unduly penalize internationally educated workers and prioritize those with Canadian credentials and experience.
“More must be done to identify and challenge labour market discrimination,”
Finally, efforts to develop more efficient and just means of assessing immigrants’ skills and experience should be accompanied by a real commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion across Canadian workplaces. More must be done to identify and challenge labour market discrimination and encourage more equitable approaches to hiring, advancement and promotion to make immigrants feel confident, comfortable and eager to contribute all that they have to offer.
Overall, Canada is very fortunate to have attracted such a large number of highly qualified immigrants from countries around the world. Every year, thousands of individuals continue to immigrate to Canada, and many of these individuals are ready and eager to contribute to the Canadian labour market. This high level of human capital is a gift, a resource that Canada can use to fuel the engines of its economic growth – but only if it takes dramatic steps to better utilize the knowledge, skills and experience that immigrants bring to Canada when they choose it as their new home. It has become clear that simply recruiting highly skilled immigrants is not enough. Many immigrants are not finding the success they are looking for in Canada and are exploring other options. More must be done to help immigrants succeed in their careers, or else the country may struggle to retain them. Recognizing this, and taking concrete steps to avoid it, is essential to safeguard Canada’s future economic prosperity as well as its reputation as a country that is truly open and welcoming to immigrants.