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Economic migrants are the most prominent category of people who move to Canada, mainly under its Express Entry program. The Express Entry program allows skilled immigrants to gain points through various aspects of their life, including work, education and language skills, to be selected by the Ministry for migration. This program has streams to fit different subcategories, requiring slightly different eligibility criteria, such as Canadian Experience Class, Federal Skilled Worker and now Federal Skilled Trades program. Canada heavily relies on economic migrants to meet its population and job needs. Over 50% of migrants in 2021 came to Canada under various economic class categories. Moreover, 100% of the country’s labour force and population growth by 2032 may possibly be due to new immigrants alone. 

Express Entry and its related immigration policies in Canada are a major factor in managing the economic and social success of the country. Every so often, there are changes to the system to accommodate for ongoing realities of the world and how Canada is affected by them. The most recent change to the Express Entry program was a response to COVID-19-related economic recovery at the end of 2022. The change was made possible by Bill C-19, a parliamentary bill comprising various social and economic policy changes, presented in 2021 and approved in June 2022. 

Amongst other financial and social policies available under this bill, there were some changes to the immigration process presented considering the needs of Canada’s population and economy. The immigration changes under this Bill allowed Sean Fraser, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship, to select candidates from the Express Entry pool based on their qualifications instead of just their CRS points, which is how most other immigrants get selected in the application. 

From Policies to People: The Over-qualification Problem

It has been well-discussed in recent years that Canada is eager to meet its immigration targets post-Covid to meet economic needs and clear severe backlogs in processing. The new policy change aims to provide a multi-pronged solution to this long-standing problem. It warrants a closer look, however, keeping in mind that immigrants are people, families, and workers who join a society, not a silo of policy statistics. 

Entering your profile in the Express Entry pool, receiving the Invitation to apply, and finally immigrating to Canada is a big win for families and individuals, which can often overshadow the struggles awaiting them. A common perception is that if we move to Canada, jobs are waiting for us to fill them because if not, why else would they want to bring thousands of people into their country? Even if that is true, it is easy to skip the steps in between that encompass settlement services, getting cultural competencies, and ‘settling in’ a new place. 

One unexpected problem is what Canada reports as the ‘underutilization’ of skills in skilled workers when they migrate to Canada. Underutilization is a phenomenon where individuals work in jobs they are overqualified for or vastly different from their actual skillset. In this context, the Government of Canada defines over-qualification as when university graduates are in jobs that require no more education than a high school diploma. This impacts immigrants who count on their university degrees, which helped them score points to immigrate, but are left disappointed when they look for jobs. 

“From 2001 to 2016, the percentage of university-educated recent immigrants working in jobs requiring a university degree decreased from 46% to 38%. In comparison, the percentage of workers in jobs requiring a university degree stayed close to 60% among young (25 to 34 years) Canadian-born workers with at least a bachelor’s degree,” states a 2022 brief from Statistics Canada regarding immigration insights. 

What warrants a closer look is that the underutilization of skilled immigrants is a known phenomenon to Canadian immigration policy-makers. The federal government gathered and released a sizeable amount of data that needs to translate into actionable policies that trickle down to employment sectors. 

The Vicious Cycle of Canadian Work Experience 

Putting a story to the statistics, Misbah Noor narrated in a CBC story last year how surprised she and her husband were when they arrived as new immigrants. They had qualified for immigration based on their education and skills; when they started searching for jobs, many employers preferred people with Canadian work experience, so they had to work jobs way outside of their prior education and experience for several years. 

Their experience shows that Canadian graduates have a better chance of getting a job based on their qualifications. It is not directly because of their education but their ability to gain Canadian work experience during their education years. For example, I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from Canada and work here on a work permit; a permanent resident with a higher education and more experience than me could potentially find it difficult to be hired because I have had the time to gain Canadian work experience. The immigration process and subsequent employment struggles lead new immigrants to delay their professional goals and have to work in jobs often unrelated to their field to rack up Canadian work experience before other employers start considering them. 

The main question is, if the immigrant labour force is the need of the hour for Canada, why are employers still looking for Canadian work experience in many sectors? At the level of IRCC, Express Entry immigration streams separate the Canadian Experience Class and those with foreign work experience; however, the latter category is not acknowledged in the job markets. It shows a significant gap in the national policy and the actual mindset of those outside the government who make these policies. 

A report prepared by Employment and Social Development Canada consulted employment stakeholders in various industries to understand why there is a skill gap when immigrants come to the country for their experience. A top contributor to the job-skill gap was licensing and certification, something identified as a priority for the Canadian authorities to work on to bridge accreditation between Canada and other parts of the world. In simple words, what steps do professional associations in Canada take to recognize the qualifications of professionals from around the world better. As a win, the report outlines how medical laboratory professionals have been given access to the pan-Canadian accreditation system before entry to get a head start on becoming registered in Canada. This applies to all provinces, which cannot be said for other jobs because each province has their own accreditation rules and systems. 

A Potential Way Forward 

Ensuring policies make their way down to impacting every aspect of society is an incredibly challenging task. Still, it is not impossible if the government and employers invest enough time and energy in understanding how cultural shifts affect the labour market. We already see some efforts from social service organizations in this regard. They are critical for immigrants finding support to build a career and transition to Canada. Their work ensures immigrants and various marginalized populations within the larger immigrant community have access to advice from those who were in similar situations and help bridge the knowledge gap among them. 

However, the social services sector cannot and should not be expected to shift people’s mindset in the Canadian job sector, especially amongst employers who still prioritize Canadian work experience. Besides, work experience gained exclusively in Canada should not be the only standard to assess immigrants’ skills and strengths. 

Federal and provincial bodies across Canada can urge employers to make their hiring and assessment practices more inclusive, considering Canada’s major labour supply comes from immigrant populations. If employers improve their inclusivity, the government will likely reach their intended goal of reducing the labour shortage in Canada, and immigrants will feel less shocked when hired for their overall work experience.

Edited by Alexandra Hu

Maham Kamal Khanum

Maham is a International Relations graduate from UBC, now working in the university in higher education fundraising and development. Maham is passionate about working in international education programs...