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Canada enjoys a strong international reputation and it has a proven ability to quickly bring in workers to make up for talent gaps in fields that require higher levels of education.Phynart Studio

Canada’s population could boom to more than 52 million by 2043, a forecast that nearly doubles current figures.

The country is already struggling with a talent shortage, much of it concentrated in key areas such as health care, skilled trades, and service jobs. As the population grows, in large part due to immigration, there’s a danger those gaps will widen without attracting people who want to work in those industries.

Canada’s immigration system has historically prioritized highly educated workers whose skills are not a match for the requirements of sectors such as construction, manufacturing or hospitality.

The three programs that offer Express Entry each take education, work experience and language skills into consideration. The Global Talent Stream, which was introduced by the federal government in 2017, allowed those highly educated workers to obtain work permits in as little as two weeks.

“We’ve got a ruthlessly smart immigration system that’s very focused on academics, which doesn’t really help the blue-collar sectors,” says Ruairi Spillane, managing director of Moving2Canada, an online resource for prospective and recent immigrants.

Mr. Spillane, who emigrated from Ireland in 2008, says applicants who are not eligible for those express pathways often struggle to get here, and they face more obstacles in staying long term.

“Normally it takes a newcomer here on a temporary work permit about two years to go through the process,” he says. “It’s the most discouraging, bureaucratic process, and you know what? They end up giving up.”

At the same time Mr. Spillane says industries other than high tech are desperate for talent in the wake of the pandemic. He adds there are significant talent gaps in the health care, education, hospitality, transportation, manufacturing, construction and oil-and-gas sectors in Canada, to name just a few.

“All of those are taking off at the same time, and it’s a perfect storm for running out of people,” he explains. “Immigration is the solution, but there’s been a lot of floundering.”

This is not the case in Canada’s high-tech industries. Despite accounting for less than a quarter of the national workforce, immigrants make up roughly 40 per cent of computer programmers and engineers in Canada, and more than half of all chemists.

“There’s a lack of senior developers because a lot of our local tech talent has moved to the U.S., or is working remotely for a U.S. company. And because tech has infiltrated everything, every company is a tech company now,” says Ilya Brotzky, founder of VanHack, which helps Canadian tech employers source talent from abroad. “We just don’t have the people with the skills available.”

Since its founding seven years ago VanHack has helped more than 1,500 tech industry workers relocate to Canada. “Since we started VanHack demand has only increased,” Mr. Brotzky says. “I don’t see that trend slowing down.”

According to research conducted by the Conference Board of Canada, many immigrants that gain entry because of their relatively high level of education also struggle to have those credentials recognized. While the tech sector has been relatively successful in onboarding workers with foreign skills and experience, others that require high levels of education — like health care, law and engineering — don’t have the same track record.

As a result many come with advanced degrees that aren’t recognized by Canadian employers, and they take temporary roles in essential service sectors in the hopes of eventually returning to their chosen field. According to the report, Valued Workers, Valuable Work: The Current and Future Role of (Im)migrant Talent, newcomers are over-represented in the food manufacturing, transportation, nursing and residential-care sectors, and they are more likely to be overqualified for those positions.

“People may go into the service economy or transportation as a temporary measure while they work their way up to the career that they’re actually trained and experienced for, but it’s not a long-term solution for those industries,” says Iain Reeve, the associate director of immigration research for the Conference Board, who co-authored the report.

“To meet the need that is present in those industries we probably need immigration programs designed for people who want to work in those jobs.”

Dr. Reeve explains that Canada enjoys a strong international reputation and it has a proven ability to quickly bring in workers to make up for talent gaps in fields that require higher levels of education. He hopes that moving forward the country uses some of those proven strategies to fill roles in previously overlooked segments of the workforce.

“We’re one of the best countries in the world in attracting talent overall, but our program needs to evolve,” he says. “We don’t have enough of an emphasis on skilled-trade workers, despite the fact that they are often quite stable, relatively high-paying jobs with lots of opportunity for career progression, where the demand is high, chronic and unlikely to change in the near future.”

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