Claudia Hepburn is the chief executive of Windmill Microlending, a national charity that helps immigrants restart their careers, triple their incomes and alleviate skilled labour shortages.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has predicted Canada’s economic growth will be dead last among 40 advanced economies over the next half decade. This shocking statistic is based on per capita growth in gross domestic product, which is the country’s productivity divided by the total population. How can we fix that?
Immigration is often touted as a panacea for economic growth, yet that notion is increasingly being challenged.
Analysts who favour higher levels of immigration cite Canada’s low birth rate, aging population and rapidly declining ratio of working age Canadians to seniors (7.7 to 1 in 1966, 3.4 to 1 in 2022). Others who want to reduce immigration targets argue that our supply of housing, health care and infrastructure are insufficient to handle a massive increase in newcomers. Still others contend that the solution is to focus on immigrants with the highest skills and earnings potential.
I believe immigration is a critical part of the solution – but only part of it. Necessary in the face of Canada’s low birth rates, high immigration levels alone will not address our punishingly low economic growth rate.
Canada’s issue is not a shortage of skilled immigrants, but the roadblocks that stand in the way of their economic integration.
A recent Scotiabank Economics report shows that two-thirds of immigrants arrive with university degrees, whereas only one-third of Canadians hold them. Yet two-thirds of native-born, university-educated Canadians are in jobs that require a degree, whereas only one-third of immigrants with degrees are in jobs that require one. In health care, the numbers are almost as bad: More than 60 per cent of internationally trained doctors and nurses are not working in their profession.
Canada’s labour needs are not what they were a decade ago, let alone a generation or a century ago. Many of our labour shortages are for highly skilled workers: nurses, doctors, pharmacists, engineers and cybersecurity experts. Low-income and affluent Canadians alike will suffer if these skills gaps are not addressed.
There is no point in admitting highly educated people if we are not going to allow them to put their skills to work.
There are many reasons why this skills waste is happening. Most of them stem from a bygone era when labour supply outstripped demand and xenophobic policies that protected Canadian educational institutions and graduates were popular. It’s clear now that those policies are damaging to our economic growth and to our reputation as a just, inclusive and welcoming society.
The costs, in time and money, of reaccreditation programs for internationally trained professionals are excessive – often measuring in years and tens of thousands of dollars. There are also too few residency spaces for internationally trained physicians, and too many requirements for Canadian experience that are hard for newcomers to attain.
My organization sees these challenges daily through our clients’ eyes. Too many engineers, pharmacists and doctors are working in fast-food service or driving for Uber because they can’t afford the cost of accreditation. Without a Canadian credit history, they spend years underemployed.
Governments are taking steps to address these challenges, but the progress is too slow.
Bringing skilled immigrants to Canada is critical to our future prosperity. But smoothing their path to professional integration and prosperity is even more important if we want to climb out of last place in the OECD ranking of GDP per capita and preserve our standard of living over the next generation.