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Sean Fraser arrives for a cabinet swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on July 26. Mr. Fraser, who until recently was immigration minister, said category-based selection would help Canada bring in health care and construction workers that it desperately needs in ailing sectors of the economy.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The federal government is upending its points-based system for immigrant selection this year and prioritizing candidates with experience in the technology sector, despite recent layoffs and weakening labour demand in the industry.

Since June 28, Ottawa has invited people with particular attributes to apply for permanent residency (PR), a departure from how the Express Entry system, which accounts for a large portion of economic immigration to Canada, usually works.

Candidates in that pool are assigned a score – based on such factors as age and education – and the government regularly selects those with the highest scores to apply for PR status.

Under the new approach, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) is frequently sending out invitations to apply to a subset of individuals. This year, IRCC will focus on people with French-language skills or recent work experience in one of five fields, including STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and health care.

Sean Fraser, who until recently was immigration minister, said category-based selection would help Canada to bring in health care and construction workers that it desperately needs in ailing sectors of the economy.

Canada’s new approach to immigrant selection aims to fix labour markets. Will it create more gaps instead?

“Realistically, we need to leverage the new flexibilities that will kick in in 2023 to do targeted draws for people who have the skills to build more houses,” he said at a press conference last November.

But the federal government will put considerably more emphasis on the recruitment of STEM workers, according to targets that IRCC shared with The Globe and Mail.

Between 28 per cent and 31 per cent of PR invitations that are issued through the Express Entry system this year will go to people with recent experience in certain STEM jobs, such as data scientists and software developers. Most applications are processed within six months of being received.

This easily exceeds the target ranges for candidates with French-language proficiency (11 per cent to 15 per cent) or those with experience in specific occupations within health care (nine per cent to 12 per cent), trades (three per cent to four per cent), transportation and agriculture (one per cent to two per cent each).

The emphasis on tech-savvy immigrants is part of a broader recruiting strategy that’s taken shape in recent weeks. This month, for example, the federal government invited skilled workers with H-1B visas in the United States to apply for Canadian work permits, hitting its cap of 10,000 applications within 48 hours of the initiative’s launch.

But this push also coincides with a challenging time for the tech sector, which has endured a series of high-profile layoffs over the past year, including two rounds of sweeping cuts at Shopify Inc. Tech-related job growth has slowed dramatically this year, while postings for some roles have plunged to below pre-pandemic levels.

There’s been “a huge shift in the job market when it comes to recruiting activity and hiring appetite,” said Brendon Bernard, senior economist at hiring site Indeed Canada.

Economists and policy experts have warned that Canada has a checkered history in matching immigrants to specific jobs.

Just under 50 per cent of STEM-educated adult immigrants in the U.S. and Canada worked a STEM job in the mid-2010s, according to a report that Statistics Canada published in 2020.

Of the remaining STEM-educated immigrants, about 50 per cent in the U.S. found a job that required a university degree, while in Canada, just 20 per cent did. “In Canada, most STEM-educated immigrants who could not find employment in a STEM occupation found lower-skilled jobs,” Garnett Picot and Feng Hou wrote in the report.

The authors noted that Canada experienced a rush of STEM-educated immigrants in the 1990s, in response to the ill-fated dot-com boom, and their ranks “have remained at high levels” ever since. “In the absence of a shortage of STEM workers, employers may prefer to hire those educated in Western countries,” the report said.

Tech companies, on the other hand, frequently say that Canada suffers from a shortage of skilled workers, making it tough to compete globally.

To date, IRCC has invited 8,600 people to apply for permanent residency over five rounds of category-based selections. There has been one round of STEM invites that went to 500 people.

IRCC will continue to select people from the broad pool of Express Entry candidates, not just those with specific attributes; if a STEM worker receives a PR invite in this manner, it counts toward the target for that category. And depending on a person’s attributes – say, a French-speaking engineer – they can be counted in multiple categories.

The Immigration Department developed its list of desired occupations after a public consultation that drew 289 responses from various stakeholders, including Amazon and the Council of Canadian Innovators, a lobby group for prominent tech companies. The categories are in place for 2023 and subject to change thereafter.

The Express Entry system is being shaken up in the process. By filtering for specific job experience, the government is reaching deeper into the pool of candidates, which means that some high-scoring candidates will get passed over. (The scores correspond to their expected earnings in Canada, based on the outcomes of previous newcomers.)

“You’re going to bring in STEM workers whose points, in terms of education etc., would actually not get them in here” under the usual approach, said David Green, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia.

“It’s not like there’s an infinite number of really good STEM workers out there. There’s going to be a distribution, and by doing this, we are going down to the less competent part of the distribution.”

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