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Passengers arrive at Pearson Airport in Mississauga, Ont. on March 14.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The federal government has shifted its immigration policy by recruiting thousands of foreign nationals to settle permanently in Canada in hopes they will fill specific jobs, a strategy that has drawn criticism from labour experts.

Since late June, the immigration department has invited almost 9,000 people to apply for permanent residency because of their recent work experience in certain occupations or because of their French-language skills. These individuals are being selected through the Express Entry system, which accounts for a large portion of economic immigration to Canada.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said last year that it would target immigrants who could fill roles in high demand. On May 31, the department announced it would focus on French speakers and people with experience in five fields: health care, skilled trades, agriculture, transportation and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Within health care, for example, the government is seeking immigrants with experience in 35 occupations, including dentists, massage therapists and registered nurses.

The government says its pivot to category-based selection of immigrants, which started on June 28, is meant to ease the hiring challenges that have frustrated many sectors of the economy over the past few years.

But this new approach has raised concerns among economists and policy experts, who warn that today’s labour needs could change quickly and leave the country with a glut of workers in some fields. Moreover, they say high-ranking candidates in Canada’s points-based immigration system could get overlooked as Ottawa prioritizes various groups.

Labour markets “are always evolving and changing,” said Robert Falconer, a doctoral fellow at the London School of Economics who studies migration policy in Canada. “We’re potentially overtargeting certain needs.”

Canada’s labour market is undergoing a transition. While employment has risen by a net 290,000 positions so far this year, job vacancies have tumbled about 20 per cent from their peak levels in 2022. The unemployment rate, now at 5.4 per cent, has risen half a percentage point from a record low set last year.

In some areas, there appears to be persistently high demand for labour. As of April, there were more than 150,000 vacant jobs in health care and social assistance, a record high – almost a fifth of all job vacancies in Canada.

These labour gaps “are just going to get worse as the population ages,” said Rupa Banerjee, a Canada Research Chair in immigration and economics at Toronto Metropolitan University. “Targeting those kinds of occupations has the potential to improve this mismatch” in labour supply and demand.

But in some white-collar industries, there has been a steep drop in vacancies. For example, job postings in software development have plummeted to below prepandemic levels on the hiring site Indeed Canada. (Software developers are among the STEM roles being targeted by the government.)

“We don’t know if the targets that are set today will really be indicative of the needs that we’ll have in five years’ time,” Dr. Banerjee said.

She noted that category-based selection echoes a situation in the late 1990s, when the government admitted thousands of technology workers during a boom period in that industry. Shortly afterward, the dot-com crash led to significant layoffs.

To date, IRCC has invited 8,600 people to apply for permanent residency over five rounds. Two of those rounds targeted French speakers, another two focused on candidates with recent work experience in health care occupations and one focused on STEM experience.

This is a departure from how Express Entry usually works.

Immigration candidates in the Express Entry pool are assigned a score through the Comprehensive Ranking System (CRS), accounting for such factors as age, education and employment history. The score corresponds to their expected Canadian earnings, based on the outcomes of previous cohorts of immigrants.

In the past, Ottawa would select a few thousand people with the highest scores every two weeks to apply for permanent residency. Policy experts likened this to a “cream-skimming” approach that would boost economic outcomes by targeting people with the highest earnings potential.

But in selecting people with certain attributes, the government is reaching deeper into the pool – and those individuals, with lower CRS scores, have lower expected earnings.

Last week, for example, IRCC invited 3,800 people in the French-language category to apply. The cut-off score for an invite was 375 – much lower than usual.

“It’s analogous to a university prioritizing other considerations, such as athletic ability or legacy status, in their student selection,” said Mikal Skuterud, an economics professor at the University of Waterloo, via e-mail. “The inevitable trade-off is lower average academic quality of new admissions.”

IRCC is still selecting people from the broad pool of Express Entry candidates, but it has largely focused on category-based selections since late June. The categories are in effect for 2023 and subject to change thereafter.

Dr. Banerjee said this adds “uncertainty” to a system that, because of the points system, was more predictable for prospective immigrants. “People who perhaps have a higher score may be overlooked, and this could lead to a lot of frustration,” she said.

Recognizing foreign credentials is another issue, Mr. Falconer said. Just because someone is selected for their health care work experience doesn’t mean they’ll easily transition into a similar role in Canada.

He said he senses “mission creep” in how IRCC is trying to fulfill multiple objectives at once, such as boosting the number of French speakers through an economic immigration program.

“If we want to accomplish goals outside of economic goals, I think that’s fine,” he said. However, with the Express Entry system, “we should really see it as the economic productivity stream, where we do aim to boost productivity across Canada.”

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