New immigration rules will target workers aged 18 to 35 as the Conservative government provides the clearest sense yet of how Canada will rely on young immigrants to soften the fiscal pain of a demographic crunch.
The federal regulations reveal a sweeping overhaul of the points system used by Canada for approving foreign worker applications.
The new points grid provides details that are in line with previous government pledges to gear the immigration system toward younger workers with strong language skills in English or French who already have a job lined up in Canada.
Under new rules that will take effect next year, workers aged 47 and over will receive no points for age, compared with 12 for those between 18 and 35, the most coveted age group under the Federal Skilled Worker Class of immigrants.
The available points for applicants decreases by one for each year above 35.
The government says the change, announced over the weekend, is based on clear evidence that older immigrants are much less likely to succeed in the work force, although that position is not without its critics who say that the government points system should be more flexible.
Driving the change is the concern that the ratio of working-age Canadians to retirees is shifting dramatically.
"An aging population … represents a significant policy challenge for Canada," a federal analysis of the changes says. "The immigration of young people able to work at relatively high wages for a number of years can help lessen the consequences of this phenomenon."
Independent research supports the government's claims that younger immigrants perform better financially, but some say there shouldn't be hard and fast rules.
"The next Frank Stronach could be 38 years old, and then what do we do?" said Ratna Omidvar, president of the immigration-focused Maytree Foundation and board chair of the Toronto Region Immigrant and Employment Council. "I think a little less rigidity would be preferable."
On language, the new rules will give significantly more points to applicants who have strong language skills in either English or French, but points for speaking both official languages will be cut in half from eight to four.
Some immigration experts say this could, at least temporarily, have the effect of curbing immigration from regions with relatively poor average English or French skills like China and South Asia. A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney rejected such theories as "innapropriate."
In addition to changing the Federal Skilled Worker Class, the new regulations also create a new Federal Skilled Trades Class and updates the Canadian Experience Class, which was created by the Conservative government in 2008.
Over all, the changes aim to help employers bring in the workers they need and make it easier for temporary workers to apply for citizenship while in Canada. The rules also decrease the points for work experience outside of Canada.
Citizenship and Immigration has posted an extensive rationale for the changes in the Canada Gazette, citing numerous academic studies to support specific measures.
One of the cited researchers, McMaster University economics professor Arthur Sweetman, who co-authored a paper called "Immigrant Earnings: Age At Immigration Matters," says the federal age rules are clearly supported by data.
"It makes a lot of sense," he said. "Immigrants who arrive later in life – on average – have a lot more difficulties in the labour market."
However, on the broader objectives of the federal rules, Dr. Sweetman noted that the government discusses how they will benefit employers and new immigrants, but is silent on their potential impact on existing Canadian workers.
"If you were going to design an immigration system that was going to help employers keep wages low, this is pretty close to what you'd want," he said, noting that it will be important to ensure employers are really making an effort to find Canadian workers before turning to the immigration system.
NDP immigration critic Jinny Sims said the government's approach to changing demographics seems poorly thought out. She said that listing workers over 35 as "too old" to come to Canada seems at odds with the government's plans to have Canadians work until 67 before qualifying for Old Age Security.
"It just doesn't make any sense," she said.