Building a Workforce Through Immigration

By Angus Gillespie

A fundamental barrier to building upon the Canadian economy is due in large part to a shortage of workers who can adequately advance business innovation and product development. With certain skillsets scarce – and at times apparently absent – from domestic pools, reaching out to highly skilled foreign workers, international students and refugees are all taking significant roles in shaping Canada’s economic and social landscape. But how many immigrants should be coming into the country each year in order for Canada to reap the maximum benefits from a socio-economic point of view? Acquiring consensus on an exact answer to that question is about as elusive as asking ‘how wet is water?’

Canada’s entire history and existence is founded on immigration and it is deeply engrained in economic policy. From the early-day settlers, to farmers and construction workers, scientists, engineers, lawyers, teachers, hospitality workers – immigrants have built this nation. To adequately fill the national workplace requirements of continuing to build the economic base even more robustly than it is now, the country must still look abroad.

By its very nature, immigration has both its benefits and its challenges. The aim is to minimize the challenges and keep them as short-term as possible while being able to maximize the benefits over the long term. People from other countries have immense talents and skills to share, with some possessing new thoughts and ideas on innovation and entrepreneurship. What also must be remembered is that the most highly skilled people are often courted by other countries to help advance their economic aspirations.

The Federal Plan

John McCallum, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, recently delivered a keynote speech at the Toronto Region Board of Trade, revealing how the new federal government is approaching immigration. The event was co-hosted by the Pearson Centre for Progressive Policy. As the former chief economist with the Royal Bank of Canada, McCallum has decades of experience in this area. He promised and delivered upon an ambitious goal of bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees from their war-torn country over a very short period of time. In addition to that, the federal Liberals have set out an aggressive commitment to do even more. It’s yet to be seen just how successful that plan will be.

The Canadian Business Journal had an opportunity to speak directly with McCallum about the federal government’s immigration policy plans following his keynote address. Not surprisingly, McCallum says the first thing that he is most often asked pertains to the Syrian refugees.

“I am a self-admitted economist, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from what I’ve been in the news about; just about everything has been about refugees,” he begins. “For me, at least, refugees are more a question of the heart than dollars and cents. It has been quite a heartfelt experience to be a part of this process and to witness the incredible generosity of Canadians who welcomed all of these refugees to our country.”

McCallum is of the opinion that bringing in refugees goes far beyond a humanitarian aspect, but is one of economics as well. As of now, the federal government has managed to find permanent housing for 98% of those 25,000 people who came to Canada by last December. However, McCallum admits there are figures on how many of those able-bodied individuals over the age of 18 are currently employed. He points to language as being one of the main barriers that must first be overcome for many of them. It’s unclear how long the refugees will be given to learn English and or French that will enhance their ability to obtain work with a far broader range of employers. It’s also not known if the federal government has any projected timelines on the matter. Meanwhile, there are more refugees coming from Syria and other parts of the world into Canada. McCallum concedes the main challenge now is to help the adults secure jobs.

Although it has not yet been installed, McCallum says the federal government remains committed to cutting the huge processing time for family-class immigrants. The Minister notes that the federal immigration department is not just about refugees, as important as they are. He is also not a fan of the phrase “economic immigrants” feeling that it implies there are useful immigrants and rather useless ones who are non-economic.

“Everyone contributes in one way or another to the economy,” McCallum counters. “Some are spouses who aren’t working. The grandparents may not work themselves, but they enable the parents to work – and most of the refugees work. We’ve reinstated refugee healthcare and introduced the Citizenship Act to ensure there is only one class of Canadians, not two and to remove barriers to become citizens.

In an effort to attract high-skilled labour, or even general labour for that matter, Canada often finds itself in competition with other countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia to seek out the best and the brightest from around the world.

“Never have we been more dependent on immigration than we are today with our aging population,” McCallum says. “We need to make Canada a more attractive destination for these skilled – and sometimes less-skilled – immigrants that our country needs so much.”

Getting the Numbers Right

There are three specific areas that McCallum and his team will be focusing on in an effort to make Canada the preferred destination while also generating the best policy on immigration. The first area centres on the actual numbers of immigrants. Canada is now at a level of bringing in 300,000 people per year. McCallum admits he would like that number to increase but says we first need to learn how to build a bigger economic pie.

“To get more immigrants is a combination of more money to hire more public servants to interviewee prospective new people and improved efficiency. What my department learned from the refugee experience when we brought in so many so quickly – without sacrificing security or health – is that people can do the job fast. If they can do it fast for refugees, why can’t they do it fast for other forms of immigration? I think they can, and I told them they can. I told them this is punishment for good behaviour,” McCallum smiles.

McCallum says he and his team will be holding numerous consultations in the coming months with a wide variety of stakeholders from business and labour and the provincial governments. The federal government will have a three-year plan for immigration levels in 2017, 2018 and 2019, with the final plan to be announced sometime this fall. While immigration is vital, getting the numbers correct is equally as important.

As McCallum acknowledges, a number of Canadians feel immigration is already too high. You can count Immigration Watch Canada to that group. IWC is a non-profit organization of Canadians who believe that immigration has to serve the interests of its own citizens, and cannot be as it says – be turned into a social assistance/job-finding program for people from other countries. It also says immigration should not be a method to suppress wages and provide employers with an unending supply of low-wage labour and it should never be a social engineering experiment that is conducted on Canada’s mainstream population in order to make it a minority. According to the IWC, immigration has become all of that.

Joseph Mancinelli, International VP & Regional Manager Central & Eastern Canada, LiUNA, represents about 100,000 construction workers in Canada. You can count Mancinelli and his organization as having the polar opposite view to that of Immigration Watch Canada. But Mancinelli’s organization also has well-constructed training programs that will teach newcomers how to handle their new jobs in a new country.

“A very important part of immigration is to ensure there is a vehicle for training the folks who are coming in to Canada. In fact our training centres – 14 in Ontario alone – have facilitated that role,” Mancinelli says. “We are pleased to have joined together with the federal government to ensure that we help out and train these people, including some of the Syrian refugees who recently came to the country.”

“It’s a very complex issue but one that is dear to our hearts. Our organization was started by immigrants in 1903 and here we are 113 years later and still the vast majority of our members are immigrants,” Mancinelli continues.

As with all countries, Canada goes through cycles in its economy, and we are now at a point where a large percentage of the current workforce will soon be heading into retirement. Those workers need to be replenished to handle the extraordinarily large amount of construction work that is being unveiled, much of which is coming through the federal Infrastructure program.

International Students

The second area that McCallum and the feds will focus on is to try and increase the number of international students coming into Canada for their education, with the aim of having them stay here as permanent residents of Canada.

“I’ve spoken many times across this country to many different to many different groups and I can’t think of a group of people more appropriate and beneficial than international students to become permanent residents,” McCallum says.

Many international students do have the benefit of speaking English and or French and by definition are often quite young, which gives them many years of potential for being part of the Canadian workforce and contributing to the economy. Those individuals most often already have a solid grasp about what Canada is all about.

“I feel they have been shortchanged by the Express Entry system in combination with the Labour Market Impact Assessment,” McCallum says. “We’ve already benefitted them on our Citizenship Act by reinstating the 50% credit that international students get for time spent in Canada.”

In addition, McCallum and the federal government has a plan to implement a points’ system to facilitate international students to become residents of Canada.

Naysayers such as IWC are concerned that foreign students will push out Canadians wanting higher education. Schools for higher learning do have caps on the number of students who are accepted within any given program, so that is certainly a prickly point that is not likely soon to go away. It’s estimated there are about 340,000 foreign students now in Canada.

Reducing Bureaucracy

In order to attract the best and the brightest, McCallum says it is imperative that the bureaucratic red tape be cut to provide a more flexible system. Decision-making simply takes too long.

“We want companies to be able to go out and hire the people they want to hire without numerous roadblocks stopping them,” the minister says.

The Labour Market Impact Assessment is a process that determines whether an immigrant is taking a job away from a Canada and whether a foreigner is needed to come into Canada to fill the position. It is a document that an employer in Canada may need to acquire before hiring a foreign worker. A positive LMIA will show that there is a need for a foreign worker to fill the job. It will also show that no Canadian worker is available to do the job. A positive LMIA is sometimes called a confirmation letter.

“It’s fine to have that for temporary foreign workers but I don’t think ever in our history have we had such a system applied to permanent residents,” McCallum says. “We want to impose the best and the brightest – not impose a test on them.”

It is McCallum’s intent to reduce the red tape so that companies are more willing to work through the process of hiring skilled labour from other countries, should the need be there. He says it’s not for the sake of making companies happy, but rather is for the sake of Canada as a whole.

“We have an aging population and inherent needs in certain sectors across the country and we are in competition with all these other countries to secure talent,” McCallum says.

“My job is to sell the notion of immigration to all Canadians,” McCallum frankly states. “If you look at immigration opinion polls, most Canadians think the level now is about right, but there are more who think it’s too high than too low. If we as a government want to sell more immigration we have to appeal to Canadians not with arguments that it’s good for companies and immigrants but with arguments that it’s good for Canadians.”

Opening the floodgates and letting everybody in clearly is not the answer, nor is it a solution the vast majority of Canadians would support. It’s about finding a proper balance that makes sense.

“We went from one extreme where the Conservatives let everybody in,” McCallum states. “At some points there were more temporary foreign workers coming in than there were regular immigrants. Then there were numerous scandals, including my former employer Royal Bank, involving a restaurant that fired a permanent worker to hire a temporary foreign worker.

Number of temporary foreign workers allowed to work in Canada reached a cumulative high of about 491,500 in 2012, which was five times higher than 2002. That number consisted of 213,500 new temporary foreign workers in 2012 and 278,000 who were already working in the country. It reached a point where the pendulum swung the whole way back to the point where Canada essentially was letting nobody into the country.

Most everyone agrees there needs to be a middle ground, but even that causes endless arguments, because the middle ground for some is either far to the left or far to the right for others, and that’s something that’s not ever going to change.

It’s estimated that the net cost of immigration to Canada is about $35 billion per year, so it’s a topic that’s going to gain it is fair share of attention. Nobody said it would be easy finding the perfect number of immigrants to allow into Canada each year in order to maximize social and economic benefits for the country, but for the sake of the nation, we’ve got to keep trying.