System fails immigrants and nation

TheStar.com – Opinion – System fails immigrants and nation
July 22, 2009.   Naomi Alboim

Immigration to Canada is fundamental to the nation’s social and economic well-being. Immigration can fill jobs, promote trade and innovation, generate investment and grow our population.

But the system is in trouble.

The backlog of economic applicants is enormous and the process takes so long we are losing some of the best talent to other countries. Upon arrival, too many immigrants have trouble finding work in their fields – yet employers can’t find the people they need.

Rather than fixing the federal skilled worker program, which is the core of Canada’s economic immigration stream, the federal government has created policies that put too much emphasis on short-term and ad hoc solutions.

For example, a recent policy limits entry as a skilled worker to people with an offer of employment or skills in one of 38 occupations. This was designed to ensure that immigrant skills match employer needs. Unfortunately we don’t have good enough labour market data to make it work and the list of occupations is already out of date. Further, the list creates the impression that people can easily find work in the designated occupations which is often not the case, especially in regulated professions. At the same time, it effectively tells people from other occupations that Canada is closed for business, exactly the opposite message that we should be giving when competing for skilled workers in a globalized economy.

While the federal skilled worker program has been shrinking, programs which allow provinces to select immigrants to meet regional needs have grown by leaps and bounds. In the absence of a national framework, however, would-be immigrants can simply apply to the fastest or cheapest provincial program regardless of whether they intend to stay in that province. While provincial programs serve a purpose, they are not the solution for a broken federal system.

It is also troubling that Canada now admits more temporary entrants than permanent residents and that employers use the temporary foreign worker program to fill permanent jobs. Many new temporary workers are filling low-skilled jobs. This interferes with market forces that might otherwise result in higher wages, better working conditions, and the employment of unemployed permanent residents and citizens. It also increases the potential for exploitation of temporary workers by recruiters and employers.

Once their work visa has expired, low-skilled temporary workers are expected to leave the country. As in other jurisdictions with “guest worker” programs, however, many remain in the country, creating an underclass of undocumented workers.

In 2008, the federal government created the Canadian Experience Class to allow highly skilled temporary workers and international students to apply for permanent residence from within Canada. However, this two-step approach to immigration is a problem because students, workers and their families, as temporary residents, are ineligible for the services they need to help them settle successfully in Canada.

How can we fix Canada’s economic immigration policies?

As a start, the federal government should abolish the occupation list in the skilled worker program, stop bringing in low skilled temporary workers, and limit highly skilled temporary workers to truly temporary jobs.

Most important, the federal government must articulate a national vision for economic immigration in which a revised Federal Skilled Worker Program becomes the priority. The revisions should include more points for younger immigrants and trades people, as well as mandatory testing for fluency in an official language because this is the single most important factor in labour market success. In addition, government should create a database with the résumés of overseas skilled immigrant applicants, which would be searchable by employers.

Canada also needs to adapt and improve its services to ensure that immigrants can succeed. Experience has shown that early investments in training, mentoring and work internships can lead to higher earnings and help immigrants contribute to our economy and society. These investments are not insignificant. However, they pale in comparison to the contributions that immigrants and subsequent generations will make to Canada.

Naomi Alboim is a senior fellow at the Maytree Foundation, and author of “Adjusting the Balance: Fixing Canada’s Economic Immigration Policies.” Maytree is a private foundation that studies policy solutions related to immigration, integration and diversity.

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