BY ALISON RAMSEY
Studies in both the United States and Canada have shown that job creation increases and the economy improves as the number of immigrants swells. Immigrants are, as a group, better educated than Canadians and since 1967, when the government introduced its point system, the selection process favours those with marketable skills.
Is there a market here for skilled labour? Actually, Canada is seeing signs of worker shortages in several professions – including engineers, doctors and nurses, to name a few. Added to this is the fact that the population in some provinces is shrinking, and employers are having difficulty filling their rosters with skilled help. Paul Darby, director of the Conference Board of Canada, estimates a shortfall of 3 million skilled workers by the year 2020.
Boosting immigration could be a very effective way of helping to ease the shortage, but there are other impediments.
Immigrants often have difficulty working in their fields after they arrive. On average, it takes 10 years for immigrants to get hired in jobs for which they have skills and, even then, they are not necessarily working at the skill level to which they have been trained. In March, Jeffrey Reitz of University of Toronto’s Centre for Industrial Relations, released a study showing that immigrants whose skills are underused cost the Canadian economy $2.4 billion yearly. He also estimated that they are underpaid to the tune of $12.6 billion every year. No type of job is exempt. "We used comparisons across the labour force," says Reitz.
Some organizations are answering the growing demand by helping immigrants become licensed to work in Canada after they arrive. The Ontario Ministry of Education, for example, is spending $12 million over three years to help get more foreign-trained medical professionals – nurses, doctors and pharmacists – into their professions. The money is given to local professionals associations to recruit and retain personnel. Another $3.5 million is being spent by the province to train foreign professionals to ensure they meet Canadian standards.
Yet, at the same time, experts are worried that the flow of immigrants is about to dry up, thanks to legislation coming into effect in June that changes the rules for people hoping to enter the county. Reitz says the proposed guidelines constitute a much more stringent selection criteria. He theorizes that the government hopes to eliminate a backlog of applicants, which numbers about 660,000 people. The Association of Immigration Counsel of Canada has run dozens of scenarios to determine how many of the 660,000 would be eligible under the new guidelines. "We anticipate that only five to eight percent will be allowed in," he says. The problem, adds Reitz, is when the backlog is gone but the need for skilled workers remains.
Growing demand for skilled labour is not limited to Canada. In India and China, for instance, the high-tech industry is developing. Workers from those countries who might have had to emigrate to ply their job skills in the past, now have a better chance of finding work at home. Even after skilled workers arrive, it can be a challenge to keep them here: the United States is also eager to attract the best and the brightest.
According to a survey by Canada’s Federation of Independent Business, one out of 20 jobs remains unfilled because of an inability to find suitably skilled labour. This represents about 250,000 to 300,000 vacant jobs in small- and medium-sized businesses alone. The lack is not just in professions that require higher education. The worst off are employers looking for skilled construction workers, who reported 7.7 percent of jobs went unfilled. They are followed closely by the business services and agriculture sectors. Hospitals and the personal service sector ranked tenth at 3.8 percent.
The need is greatest in Manitoba, Ontario and Alberta.