Matthew Mendelsohn is the Director of the Mowat Centre at the School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Toronto; Ratna Omidvar is president of the Maytree Foundation.
Last week, Employment Minister Jason Kenney announced new changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers program (TFW). Amid the recent public conversations about the TFW program and its possible future, it is an admission that the program is failing. The changes are meant to curb overuse – or in some cases inappropriate use – of the program by employers primarily in the service industry. But it’s not yet clear that the proposed changes will in any way address the problems it claims to solve.
It is worth recalling why some reputable employers liked the program.
The main reason is flexibility. Employers can fill positions quickly when there are no available workers. If a company needs workers with particular skills, and there are no qualified Canadians available, it is certainly in the public interest to bring in temporary foreign workers, rather than see that business close because it can’t find someone to hire.
But what if we could deliver the benefits of the TFW program in a way that allowed employers to meet more of their needs using workers already in the country?
During research for a report we will be releasing later this month on how government can broker better outcomes for both employers and immigrants, we interviewed 80 experts across all provinces – small and large employers, industry associations and sector councils, immigrant settlement agencies, and governments at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. There was a broad consensus on four things that we should do right now.
Before a temporary foreign worker can be brought to Canada, make it a requirement for the federal government to consult with provincial employment agencies like Employment Ontario or WorkBC as part of the federally mandated Labour Market Opinions that must be conducted to ensure that there are no Canadians who can fill the job. Employers may be able to find the workers they need right here in Canada.
Manitoba might be doing it best through a legislated approach. There, employers who are seeking TFWs are first linked to a database of out-of-work or under-employed professionals already living in Canada. This country already has many skilled immigrants who are un- and under-employed. Before resorting to the TFW program, we should be tapping into this talent pool.
Second, provincial employment agencies could think of themselves more explicitly as fulfilling an HR function for small and medium sized enterprises. These agencies often know exactly who is looking for work in their communities and which skills they possess, while many SMEs have no expertise or department to help them hire strategically.
If local businesses could think of provincial employment agencies as their HR department, these agencies would be able to quickly connect workers to available positions, making it possible to deliver the benefits of the TFW program with workers who are already in Canada.
Third, employers, governments, and agencies should work together to develop locally based labour market information. Many groups, like the Toronto Financial Services Alliance, already do so for their own sector. If these existing efforts are combined, the quality of information could be improved. Such local efforts should not replace the need for the federal government to improve its national data collection and dissemination efforts.
Fourth, the way we describe the skills needed for particular positions should become simpler and more easily understood. We desperately need common language that employers, governments and agencies agree on to describe the skills required for particular jobs.
Right now, many use terms like “Canadian experience” and “5 years in the work force” as shorthand to indicate that potential employees must possess some set of implicit skills. Instead, we should use what is referred to as “competency-based language.” Such an approach would help government and employers more clearly identify which precise skills are needed for a job, who has them, and how to either train workers locally or recruit them from abroad.
When employers use the TFW program, they clearly disregard workers’ lack of Canadian experience. Instead, they focus on concrete skills. There is no reason such a competency based approach cannot be used more broadly when hiring within Canada.
The Temporary Foreign Worker program has been used as an easy short-cut for businesses to quickly fill positions in the absence of locally available workers. But relatively modest changes to our current employment services system could help Canadian firms fill their talent needs right here without recourse to the TFW Program.
The federal government’s proposed changes to the TFW program will reduce its size and scope. Our four suggested improvements to the employment services system in Canada would help employers more easily fill positions. More importantly, they would also ensure that Canadians and permanent residents, including skilled immigrants already in Canada, have access to good quality jobs for which they are qualified.