Getting our immigration system back in balance

TheStar.com – Opinion – Getting our immigration system back in balance
August 07, 2009.   Carol Goar

Two years from now, Canada will reach a historic turning point. There won’t be enough new workers joining the labour force to replace those who are retiring. Employers will have to hire immigrants to succeed.

Ottawa has known this demographic crunch was coming for years. Yet rather than strengthening the nation’s capacity to bring in skilled newcomers who intend to stay here and build a life, the government of Stephen Harper has opened the floodgate to half a million temporary foreign workers who lack the qualifications to become citizens and the skills to help boost Canada’s productivity.
It is hard to tell whether the Conservatives are lurching blindly into the future or deliberately putting expediency ahead of rational planning.

What is clear is that they have taken an immigration system that was far-sighted but badly managed, and turned it into an efficient processing system for low-skill foreign labour.

When Harper was elected three years ago, 50 per cent of the immigrants admitted to Canada were highly skilled workers, chosen for their ability to contribute to the economy and integrate into the national fabric. (The rest were refugees fleeing persecution and relatives of foreign-born Canadians.)

By 2008, the proportion of skilled workers had dropped to 42 per cent. It wasn’t that Canada was accepting more refugees or family-class immigrants. It was that Ottawa was bringing in unprecedented numbers of temporary foreign workers to clean offices, drive trucks, serve fast food, join construction crews and do government paperwork.

If this trend continues, Canada will soon will find itself with a workforce that is less skilled, less productive and less capable of sustaining the nation’s standard of living.

Regrettably, the government has no intention of turning things around and there is little pressure from the opposition parties to change course. That means the impetus will have to come from concerned citizens.

Here is how Canada could get its immigration system back in balance:

1.) Eliminate the low-skill pilot project under which employers can recruit temporary foreign workers who wouldn’t otherwise be eligible for admission.

The 7-year-old program was introduced in response to Alberta’s oil boom. Now that commodity prices have cooled, it would make sense to wind down the initiative and offer employers incentives to hire and train Canadian workers.

2.) Make sure the point system used to assess would-be immigrants is compatible with the country’s labour needs and professional licensing standards.

For too long, Ottawa has thrown open the doors to doctors, scientists, accountants, engineers and educators whose credentials often aren’t recognized here, while impeding the entry of heavy equipment operators, plumbers, electricians, bricklayers and laboratory technicians whose skills are badly needed.

3.) Develop a national set of guidelines for selecting immigrants.

Under the current hodgepodge of rules, employers recruit workers to meet their immediate needs, provinces nominate immigrants to fill gaps in their labour force and Ottawa applies both its point system and an occupational screen, giving preference to workers in 38 job categories. It is hard to move forward as a country with so many actors pulling in different directions.

4.) Hire or reassign enough visa officers to process the applications of skilled workers in a timely manner.

At the moment, the average wait is 5 1/2 years. At busy visa offices such as New Delhi, Islamabad and Kiev, processing times can exceed seven years. Little wonder employers do an end-run around Immigration Canada and talented applicants apply to other countries.

The only reason to cling to the status quo is that it is a workable stopgap. No one is complaining vociferously right now.

But a nation with an aging population can’t afford to think about today and let tomorrow take care of itself.

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