Why Canada’s immigration program misses the mark when it comes to filling jobs

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Why Canada’s immigration program misses the mark when it comes to filling jobs

Author: Dan Kelly
February 9, 2015 Canada’s history is full of new beginnings: It is the story of many of our ancestors who came to this country in search of opportunity, peace or security. My mother’s family emigrated from the Ukraine in the early 1900s, and settled in Sandy Lake, Man. With little formal education, they came here to farm, work hard and build a better life for their children and their children’s children.

But while Canada continues to be a nation of immigrants, the focus of its immigration programs has changed dramatically. Some changes are positive, such as the excellent Express Entry system, but at issue is that the program is almost entirely focused on bringing in those at the highest echelons of education and experience.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the jobs sitting vacant were only at the most senior levels. But the reality is at any given time many unfilled jobs are entry level or oriented toward those with junior skill sets.

As it stands, the immigration system does not offer significant relief for labour shortages experienced by employers of more junior skilled occupations. And for the immigrants who come, the jobs on offer are usually far beneath their education and skills.

And it is not only immigrants who are disillusioned by the job market. With Canada having among the highest levels of post-secondary education attainment in the world, young Canadians, often with two degrees and $50,000 in student debt, are also discovering that the jobs available to them are at the local pizza place or grocery store.

CFIB members in the hospitality and retail sectors tell me they have trouble finding and keeping staff, even in large urban centres. In more remote areas — especially in resource-rich regions where high-paying jobs are plentiful — it is virtually impossible for some businesses to maintain a full complement of workers.

This is the reason about 10% of small businesses in Canada turned to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), which was far from ideal, but offered a temporary fix to the labour shortage problem. Sadly, that lifeline is now gone, thanks to changes to the program this summer.

What are the options now? Ask existing staff to work more hours, reduce hours of operation, abandon expansion plans or shut down the business. These are the unattractive choices facing many small businesses in the hospitality and retail sectors.

While it has been suggested employers simply pay more to attract local staff, this is not an issue of wages. If you look at the accommodation and food sector in a fast-growing economy such as Alberta and Saskatchewan, wages are rising faster than inflation, and well beyond the national rate. On top of that, margins in several sectors just don’t allow them to compete for workers with the natural resources industry.

If we were being honest, we would admit there are lots of jobs and many parts of this country Canadians are not rushing to. For example, the success of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, even in the face of the TFWP controversy, underscores the fact Canadian youth are not likely to sign up to pick vegetables in the hot summer months.

Recently, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business added a fresh proposal to the national conversation on labour shortages, calling for the TFWP to be replaced with a longer-term solution to address permanent labour shortages. Introduction to Canada Visa would be geared toward entry-level workers, addressing critical shortages for small businesses. Essentially, returning to the roots of Canada’s immigration system. The plan would allow a prospective immigrant at any skill level to come to work in Canada for a year or two, as a pathway to permanent residence.

After holding steady for two years, national job vacancy rates for the third quarter of 2014 show unfilled jobs rose to 2.7% across the country — the highest level since the 2008 recession. While it is natural for job vacancies to rise when unemployment falls, that’s little solace for small business owners desperate for workers and unable to find them.

There is a good chance many of our ancestors would be denied entry to Canada under today’s rules. I’m grateful mine were able to come. I hope Canada will continue to welcome all new immigrants, including those whose leading qualification is a willingness to work hard and begin a better life for themselves and their family. What better time than the new year to embrace a fresh start for us all?

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