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Interim federal Liberal leader Bob Rae at his home in Toronto, Ont. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Interim federal Liberal leader Bob Rae at his home in Toronto, Ont. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Canada Competes

Bob Rae on how to fix the skills gap: first fix immigration Add to ...

How do you anticipate what those skills shortages are going to be, considering the wait times for immigrants trying to get into the country?

Well, that’s an issue. The federal government is going to have to look at this policy of ignoring skill levels when they send people away. It seems to me that if an employer can say, ‘I really need this person,’ why can’t we be sensible about it? Another thing is, you’ve got to look much harder at how we’re competing for skilled people with a number of other countries. We are obviously a destination for people around the world, and we have to be much more engaged – stop saying, ‘Let’s see who applies,’ and look at it as an exercise in recruitment.

What are other countries doing that we should be doing here?

The Australians are doing a much better job of marketing themselves as a base for college and university students, and they do a much better job of allowing those students to integrate into the economy after they’ve graduated. We’re punishing kids who are here on student visas – they’re punished if they try to get work. These policies are starting to evolve, but it’s very slow, and there still isn’t enough of a connection between what the Department of Immigration is doing and what the economy really needs.

Are we losing out on some great people coming to this country if we’re just looking for the specific skills we need right now?

Yes. Look, the point is, it’s always going to be partly supply-driven. I’m not a little-immigration person; I’m a big-immigration person. I think we have to be much bigger about accepting immigrants and doing everything we can to persuade Canadians that this is a huge plus for the country, not a minus. And we can’t predict what the jobs will be in five or 10 years – we can’t even predict what the industries will be in five or 10 years – so we shouldn’t get into that kind of make-believe planning. But we should feel that the more diverse the skill set of the work force and the more we value education as a society – and in education, I include learning a skill or a craft – the more likely we are to get the investment and the jobs that will create growth and make us more competitive.

There’s a huge issue around recognizing credentials, which vary from province to province and industry to industry. What’s happening to fix that?

I met a guy from Pakistan who spends six months a year working for Médecins sans Frontières as a doctor, and then comes to Canada and drives a cab so his kids can go to school here. Credentials are a continuing challenge for the provinces and for the federal government. I think the provinces are trying to do more. I’m a great believer that the provinces and provincial institutions should be very much on the ground and available to people who are applying for immigration so they can see what the challenges are. We’re still not doing enough to bring people together and view this as a national issue. If you look at the impact that skills training and the development of human resources have on competitiveness and the economy, we’re not doing enough to come together.

Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and others are talking about a so-called skills mismatch – the fact that we’ve got too many teachers, say, and not enough plumbers. What about the value of a liberal arts education?

Well, I’m not one of those people who think you can tell people what to do. People will find their way. I can point out lots of kids who’ve gone to get a liberal arts education and then decided they needed to get a particular skill at community college. There is definitely a need for people to be much more aware of what the trend lines are in the economy.

To get back to aboriginal people, what are some of the strategies we might use to leverage that community and its extremely young population?

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