Why Canada’s plan to bring in 1.45 million permanent residents won’t fix the labour shortage

Of note, pretty hard hitting:

With a master’s degree in nursing and six years of experience teaching nursing students in the Philippines, Rodolfo Lastimosa Jr. figured he’d quickly get a licence to work as a registered nurse in Canada.

In September, he passed his RN exam in Ontario — 11 years after arriving in this country.

Upon coming here, his overseas credentials had been “downgraded.” He found he had to work as a live-in caregiver while qualifying to become a practical nurse (RPN), then return to school for yet another bachelor’s degree in nursing.

“There was just no other way for me but to go back to school,” says Lastimosa, a 43-year-old living in Toronto, who cared for a man with dementia and later worked for a home-care health agency while juggling his studies, costly upgrading courses and qualifying exams.

At one point, Lastimosa, living paycheque to paycheque while also financially supporting his family back home, didn’t have the money for transit fare. But he says his drive pushed him through all the necessary hoops to return to his practice.

“It was tough and I had to be strong,” says Lastimosa. “My goal was always to be an RN in Canada to help others. It took me a while, but I’m proud of myself.”

Lastimosa’s story may be extreme, but many newcomers in Canada today still struggle to get equivalent work in their fields of expertise, often due to credential-recognition issues.

That’s despite the fact that the country is facing a major shortage of workers.

The latest Statistics Canada data showed 991,000 Canadian jobs remained unfilled in the third quarter of 2022; workers were particularly lacking in construction, manufacturing, and accommodation and food services.

Of those vacancies, 177,780 were in managerial positions and professions that must have a university education; 288,750 in occupations that needed a college diploma or apprenticeship training; 319,350 in jobs that required a high-school education and job-specific training; and 202,456 were in jobs considered low-skill.

One of the solutions the federal government has put forward to deal with the shortage is to raise the immigration level. Over the next three years, Canada plans to make 1.45 million people new permanent residents of this country — on top of bringing in an unchecked number of temporary foreign workers.

But is simply increasing our intake going to do the job? What future awaits these new permanent residents? Will those arriving find meaningful work to let them succeed in their new lives? And is this country bringing in the people its labour market truly needs?

The answers to such questions are elusive, and wrapped in an at-times confusing immigration system that critics say is in serious need of an overhaul.

A smart, overqualified workforce

Canada has the most educated workforce in the G7, largely thanks to highly educated permanent residents.

In 2021, immigrants accounted for more than half of the working-age population with a doctorate and master’s degree, or a degree in medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine or optometry, as well as 39.1 per cent of those with a bachelor’s degree.

Yet one in four immigrants with a university degree worked at a job that typically requires a high school education or less. That’s 2.5 times more than the “overqualification rate” of Canadian-born degree holders.

“How do we actually admit these people and ensure that not just they, but also the people who’ve come over the last 10 years, don’t completely become an underclass?” asks Toronto Metropolitan University professor Rupa Banerjee, Canada Research Chair of economic inclusion, employment and entrepreneurship of Canada’s immigrants. 

“That’s what I worry about.”

Over the past 20 years, Canadian governments have invested in credential assessments, career-bridge training and other programs to help skilled permanent residents integrate into the workforce.

Yet between 2001 and 2016, the percentage of university-educated immigrants in highly skilled jobs in Canada fell from 46 per cent to 38 per cent, statistics show.

“So where are we after 20 years? We used to say ‘Doctors are driving cabs,’ but now we say, sometimes jokingly, ‘Doctors are driving Ubers,’” says Shamira Madhany, a former assistant deputy minister in Ontario with extensive experience working with licensing bodies, settlement agencies and higher education sectors.

“You have a million jobs to fill and you need immigrants, but if their prior skills and experience is not recognized, you’re going to end up in the same situation.”

There are those for whom deskilling hasn’t been as much of an issue. Former international graduates of Canadian institutions and temporary foreign workers already have Canadian education and work experiences when they obtain permanent residence. Among the permanent residents who came for economic reasons who landed in 2020, about 67 per cent had worked in Canada before immigration, an increase from 12 per cent in 2000 and 33 per cent in 2010. 

Their prior Canadian experience helps boost first-year earnings of permanent residents, when and if they successfully transition from their status as temporary foreign workers. First-year earnings of permanent residents in the economic class have risen by 39 per cent.

The two halves of Canada’s immigration system

When it comes to selecting skilled immigrants, Canada relies on a points system based on age, language proficiency, education levels and work experience. Applicants must have a background in listed qualifying occupations to enter the talent pool. 

It’s a system that excludes those in lower-skilled and lower-wage jobs; that’s led to another part of the problem. Canada’s immigration system is divided, observers say — there are two halves that need to be aligned.

When employers want those low-skilled workers, the system turns messy.

“The federal economic immigration programs ignore anything below medium- and high-skill jobs,” says Naomi Alboim, a senior policy fellow at TMU, who served senior roles in both federal and Ontario governments for 25 years specializing in immigration and labour.

Some hire foreign workers through the temporary worker program. When it comes to permanent positions, some provinces and employers have used their limited authority to bypass federal rules and sponsor workers such as butchers, truck drivers and servers to become permanent residents.

Increasingly, employers are turning to temporary migrants already in Canada with an open work permit. In doing so, businesses avoid going through what’s known as a labour-market assessment, a measure that’s meant to ensure no Canadian is available to do the job. Those in Canada on open-work permits include youth in a working-holiday program and hundreds of thousands of international students.

While Ottawa sets an annual target for permanent residents, there’s no cap on migrant workers and international students. 

That makes for a Wild West of temporary workers in Canada, where policymakers in this country don’t have great data about who is working in this country, what credentials they have and if their skills are what we need.

“We are way too dependent on temporary entrants,” says Alboim. “We are not providing them with the support that they need, the information that they need, the pathways that they need to transition successfully to permanent residence. We have no plan for the number of temporary entrants that we receive.”

It sets the stage for exploitation, critics say.

If Canada is to keep counting on temporary foreign workers and transitioning them to be permanent residents, it needs to have a better handle of the skill sets of these temporary residents, experts say. Ottawa must set targets for foreign workers and international students — and figure out how they fit into the puzzle.

“If we are going to continue to have a two-stage immigration system, we cannot plan only for the second stage (permanent residence). We have to plan for the first, but we do no planning for the first. That’s the big issue. That’s the elephant in the room,” says Alboim.

Last year, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser relaxed the rules for employers in order to bring in more temporary foreign workers and made 16 new lower-skilled occupations in health care, construction and transportation eligible for the permanent residence talent pool. Fraser now also has the power to do targeted draws to hand-pick permanent residents with skills in demand in Canada.

“These changes will support Canadians in need of these services, and they will support employers by providing them with a more robust workforce who we can depend on to drive our economy,” Fraser said.

Connecting the public and private sectors

Meanwhile, some jurisdictions are making strides to help high-skill workers find success in Canada. Such success, where it’s been achieved, has seen collaboration with the private sector.

Several years ago, the Immigrant Employment Council of British Columbia developed the Facilitating Access to Skilled Talent (FAST) program. It brought together employers and industry groups to develop online tools to assess the competency of permanent residents in skilled trades in construction — newcomers are evaluated and steered to further training or get credentials certified by authorities. Through an online platform, employers are matched with job-ready immigrants.

The program has since expanded to biotechnology, life sciences, information technology and long-term care. Funded by the federal Future Skills Centre, FAST is now delivered through some 50 settlement service agencies across Canada.

“It’s really important that we play our part, that businesses play their part and the post-secondary institutions play their part,” says Patrick MacKenzie, the council’s CEO. “We have to own that responsibility.”

He says 67 per cent of the FAST clients find jobs in their field within four weeks of arrival and the rate goes up to 85 per cent in eight weeks.

Femi Ogunjji, an IT professional from Nigeria, enrolled in the FAST program when he was granted permanent residence in 2017 while still in Lagos.

He attended pre-arrival online workshops and orientation about resumé writing, Canadian workplace culture and the IT job market. He also participated in e-mentoring and learned to use the keywords in his CV to get past AI pre-screening to land interviews.

A week after settling in Vancouver, a headhunter offered him a six-week contract job that turned into a full-time job as a business systems and database co-ordinator.

FAST’s soft-skill training and labour-market orientation regarding his profession was particularly helpful, says Ogunji.

“I already had all the IT certifications,” says the 41-year-old father of two. “That’s the advantage of being in technology. You don’t need any recertification.”

Where’s Fort McMurray?

Egyptian engineer Ahmed Abdallah was cautioned by his friends to lower his expectations about getting a commensurate job in health and safety management when he came to Canada.

Before arriving in July 2020, one of them recommended he enrol in a program offered by ACCES Employment in Toronto to learn about the Canadian job market in his field, work on his resumé and build professional contacts.

Through networking, Abdallah got a job offer as a health and safety environment adviser from an oilsands company in Fort McMurray — a place he’d never heard of. 

Although he initially had to take several courses on Canadian laws, rules and regulations while on the job, he says he’s happy with his choice.

“In Canada, employers care a lot about soft skills and it’s fine if you have medium technical skills. They believe if you have the soft skills, they can teach you the technical skills. What immigration does is they just make sure immigrants coming in have strong technical skills,” says the 32-year-old.

“You need employers who are open-minded, like mine, who will take a chance on new immigrants.”

ACCES Employment CEO Allison Pond says employers have been involved in her agency’s programming by supporting newcomers with onboarding.

“Our sector needs to be very comfortable working with the business world. We have a corporate engagement team that has 15 people. These are individuals who are very comfortable in the business world and yet they’re working in a non-profit charity,” says Pond.

“Our funding is provincial. Our funding is federal. We’ve got private and regional funding. Governments need to recognize and support the settlement sector … We’re a great place for that collaboration.”

More regulations — and higher stakes

When it comes to newcomers looking to enter regulated professions — such as nursing and legal counselling — things are still trickier and more complicated. The stakes in these professions are often higher, given the need to protect the public.

Part of the problem is that newcomers find themselves having to navigate different licensing rules and regulations across federal and provincial jurisdictions. In contrast, Britain and Australia both have an overarching health regulator to oversee licensing processes, making it easier for newcomers to manoeuvre through the systems, says Wilfrid Laurier University professor Margaret Walton-Roberts, whose current research focuses on the global migration of nurses.

Foreign-trained nurses and doctors coming to Canada in recent years are getting better information beforehand, starting their credential clearance and receiving the counselling about their licensing pathways sooner, she says.

However, barriers have continued because assessments and bridge programs meant to fill knowledge and skills gaps require extensive government funding and resources.

The CARE Centre for Internationally Educated Nurses, for instance, offers one-on-one case management, exam preparation, mentoring and other supports. In 2021-22, the organization got $282,000 from the federal immigration department and $1.33 million from Ontario’s Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development.

In the same fiscal year, 113 of its clients passed College of Nurses of Ontario exam to become RNs or RPNs while more than half of its program participants had been in Canada for over five years.

The province has some, limited medical residency spots available for internationally educated doctors to acquire field training experience. But they must compete against Canadians who study in medical schools abroad.

“It has to be almost bespoke, because you are talking about such a complex system and you have to match people who’ve come from a completely different country,” says Walton-Roberts, editor of “Global Migration, Gender, and Health Professional Credentials,” published by University of Toronto Press in 2022.

“You have to support the candidate as they find their way into professional practice. That all costs money.”

‘No one guided me’

The federal government has invested an extra $115 million over five years, with $30 million ongoing, to expand its foreign-credential recognition program with a focus on supporting those in health-care professions.

Ontario also passed a new law to eliminate Canadian work-experience requirements for professional registration and licensing, reduce overlapping language tests and compel regulators to sign up registrants faster in emergencies such as a pandemic. It funds 46 bridge training projects, totalling $68 million over three years, to serve 12,516 newcomers in various professions.

Although these changes help address some past challenges in effectively registering applicants, Ontario’s fairness commissioner says there still isn’t a routine “co-ordinated end-to-end system” for players in immigration, settlement, post-secondary education, regulator and employment to address and resolve licensing gaps.

Another challenge is how to assist qualified internationally trained licensing applicants who, for one reason or another, fail to meet all the registration requirements, says Fairness Commissioner Irwin Glasberg, who oversees licensing practices of 40 regulators.

“I am asking regulators and other stakeholders to find ways to move them across the finish line,” he says. “Our province cannot afford to have skilled immigrants remain on the sidelines when, with appropriate supports, they can apply their skills where they are needed most.”

In the Philippines, Lastimosa was a registered physical therapist before he studied to become a registered nurse and later a nursing instructor while working in hospital emergency. He even got himself a diploma in midwifery.

He says he felt demoralized when he was deemed ineligible to practise in Canada, after waiting a year to get his credential assessed, when competency gaps were identified. 

“Different applicants had different gaps. There’s no uniformity how to fill those gaps,” says Lastimosa, who delayed his studies at York University’s two-year nursing program until 2019, because he needed to save money while supporting his parents and relatives back home. “No one guided me what to do.”

He was a RPN for a private home-care agency and during the pandemic he worked five jobs at vaccination clinics and different hospitals before he passed his RN exam last summer.

Lastimosa says he believes some of the recent initiatives by provinces and regulators to fast-track foreign-trained health professionals into the workforce, through supervised practices and offering temporary conditional licences, certainly make sense and will help.

“It should all start with the immigration application process. If you qualify to migrate here as a nurse, it should only take you a few months or weeks to take the exam and practise, but it’s not the case,” Lastimosa says.

“The process is more streamlined now, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.” 

Source: Why Canada’s plan to bring in 1.45 million permanent residents won’t fix the labour shortage

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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