Canada's immigration system will be overhauled to place more emphasis on youth, language ability and skilled trades under a new proposal from the Conservative government.
But experts warn the government should be careful not to diminish Canada's record of attracting highly educated, adaptable newcomers.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney will immediately begin one month of public consultations on changes to the points system, which is used to assess skilled worker applications from overseas.
"There's no shortage of people who want to come to Canada, and we should frankly do all we can to attract the best and brightest," Mr. Kenney said. "There are certain traits which seem to be more heavily correlated with higher income and better employment, such as younger immigrants and higher levels of language proficiency."
At the moment, the system is based on a 100-point scale, and 67 points are required to be accepted. About a quarter of the assessment is based on English and French proficiency, a quarter on education, 20 per cent on years of work experience and 10 per cent each on age, adaptability and having arranged employment in Canada.
The current setup tends to favour applicants with advanced degrees. Tradespeople do less well because their qualifications aren't highly rewarded and they're judged on language skills that may not be required in their field. Mr. Kenney hopes to address those issues.
And although language is likely to be important in the new system, Mr. Kenney said he wants some leeway built in.
"A welder from Poland doesn't need to have university-level French, but somebody expecting to work as a medical doctor does. Perhaps the points system should be more intelligent and flexible to correspond," Mr. Kenney said.
Naomi Alboim, an immigration expert at Queen's University, said the Canadian labour market discounts foreign work experience, so re-jigging the system to reflect that reality is useful. It's also wise, in her view, to place a premium on youth, which is a good predictor of successful integration.
But while she recognizes a need to tweak the system to attract tradespeople, Prof. Alboim is strongly opposed to anything that would water down educational requirements.
"I think that high levels of education are really important given the types of new jobs that are being created as we move toward a knowledge economy," she said.
"All the research shows the more education you have, the better you do, the more adaptable you are for changing labour markets and the more effective it is [as policy]"
NDP Immigration critic Olivia Chow said the review should also reward applicants with strong family ties to Canada, such as brothers and sisters in the country.
A little more than 85,000 people arrived under the federal skilled worker program in 2010, not including their spouses and children. The target range for 2011 is much lower, at about 47,000, according to figures supplied by the ministry. Mr. Kenney said in an ideal world the numbers wouldn't be reduced, but the government is simultaneously expanding the provincial nominee program, which has grown to about 37,000 admissions from 8,000 in five years.
Provincial nominees tend to have lower levels of education but almost always have a pre-arranged job. The growth of the nominee program has also contributed to a greater dispersal of immigrants, as the share going to Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver has dropped to 75 per cent from about 90 per cent, according to Mr. Kenney, with the balance going to the Prairies and Atlantic Canada.
"In the short term, we see provincial nominees actually doing better than foreign skilled workers," Mr. Kenney said. "They typically don't go through the survival job struggle of skilled workers with university degrees as they wait for credential recognition."