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Hamid Omran knows all about building bridges.
A PhD candidate at the University of Calgary, Iranian-born Omran is also working 20 hours a week at Stantec - a professional consulting services firm - as a structural engineer specializing in pedestrian bridge design.
"My plan is when I get my degree is to get my three-year work permit and apply for residency here," he says.
Omran is one of many international students employers are recruiting to address skills shortages. In fact, when Omran was looking for a job to support his studies, he received multiple offers. He decided Stantec had what he was looking for in a career. "The projects are pretty cool compared to what I have done over in Iran."
He's not the only international recruit on the Stantec team. "There are people here from everywhere like China, Germany and Pakistan." Despite the language differences, he says, "everybody here can communicate pretty well."
International student enrolment has grown considerably in recent years, says Karen Bennett, associate vice-president of student services at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT)in Edmonton. Applications from international students have increased 10-fold over the last decade.
The attraction is easily explained, Bennett says. There are jobs to be had and opportunities to build a long-term career in Canada. "All the industries here are experiencing labour shortages. At the same time, CIC [Citizenship and Immigration Canada] is making it much easier for employers to hire graduates."
Rowan O'Grady, president of Hays Canada, an international recruitment specialist in Calgary, says when it comes to sourcing international talent, the greatest shortages are in the oil and gas sector. "At the next level is mining and resources companies, closely followed by construction."
With Canadian student enrolment in many of the engineering and technology programs declining, it comes as no surprise that employers in these sectors are sourcing talent hailing from other resource-rich countries such as the Middle East, South America and Australia.
CIC is helping their efforts with regulations that now allow international students to work off-campus up to 20 hours a week during regular academic sessions and full-time during scheduled breaks. In April 2008, CIC's Post-Graduation Work Permit Program was also improved to allow graduates to apply for open work permits for up to three years, depending on the length of time they have studied.
According to Philippe Couvrette, a CIC spokesperson in Ottawa, international students contribute significantly to social and cultural development as well as the economy. A report released by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada for example found international students contributed more than $8-billion to the Canadian economy in 2010.
He also reports that CIC's Canadian Experience Class (CEC) program launched in 2008 is the country's fastest growing immigration program. It offers foreign student graduates and others with skilled work experience in Canada the opportunity to apply to stay as permanent residents and eventually become Canadian citizens rather than having to return to their home country to do the paperwork.
"The goal of the CEC is to ensure that Canada retains talented and motivated people who have already shown that they can put their skills as well as their experience to work," Couvrette says.
Gerd Birkle, a senior associate with Stantec, says that universities are an important avenue for businesses to acquire international talent and changes in the immigration laws have helped streamline the process.
"The fact that students can work off-campus 20 hours a week has opened up a different recruitment strategy for us," he says. "It's a different way to get students to come to us from the Middle East and China, for example. I would say every single graduate student on the 20-hour program will get a [full-time] offer."
Birkle says that as a consulting firm, it can be tough to compete with other sectors fighting for the same talent. "While we can't always compete on salaries, we can offer students a flexible and communal working environment and some very interesting work."
Omran couldn't agree more. "I have just celebrated the completion of the first bridge I worked on," he says. "I can't even begin to describe that feeling."
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