Canada's plan for more immigrants aims to boost workforce, but experts say they'll need support

CBC News

Geoff Nixon · CBC News · Posted: Nov 06, 2022

A plan to welcome a record number of immigrants to Canada includes bringing in needed workers, but experts and employers say more could be done to help newcomers arrive and thrive in their new home.

The federal government wants to see 1.45 million new permanent residents in Canada over the next three years, including 500,000 people in 2025.

The push comes as Canada is dealing with a shortage of workers.

"If we don't have immigration, our workforce will not grow," said Anil Verma, professor emeritus of industrial relations and human resources management at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

According to the government's fall economic statement, "Immigration is core to our identity as Canadians, while also being a key driver of Canada's economic growth." 

Ottawa believes boosting immigration will help address labour needs in a country with an aging population and a record number of people planning retirement.

Ottawa could be 'bolder'

The federal government is aiming for roughly 60 per cent of newcomers to be in the economic class — people coming to Canada for their work skills as well as their accompanying family members — in 2025.

Dennis Darby, president and chief executive officer of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters (CME), said his trade association members are "very thankful" for what the government is doing.

"That's how we're going to get the next generation of people that we need."

The Business Council of Canada (BCC), an advocacy group that represents business leaders across a range of industries, also supports the approach, but believes Ottawa could be "bolder" in its recruitment goals.

"Directionally, we're happy with where the government is going," said Trevor Neiman, the council's director of policy and legal counsel.

Both the BCC and CME support seeing even more workers join the country and the economy.

No matter how large that cohort is, however, Verma points out that the process of moving to another country to start a new life — and securing employment — doesn't happen overnight.

That means the full impact these incoming workers will have on the labour market won't be realized immediately.

"The math on filling job vacancies is very tricky, and I think should not be the basis for long-term immigration policy," said Verma, pointing to economic growth and nation building as being more relevant factors.

'A bumpy ride'

Samitaa Chahal knows how hard the journey to a new life in Canada can be.

She left India and landed in Ontario just two weeks before the pandemic shut everything down in March 2020.

Chahal found herself on her own and trying to make sense of the chaos. That included finding a job amid a world turned upside-down.

Despite having a background in marketing and communications, her first job here was at a long-term care home.

Six months later, she found another job, and has since moved into a position as an instructional designer in the learning and development field — one that she chose over a rival job offer.

Chahal remembers the pride she felt in being able to "pick and choose what I want to do and not [from] what life throws at me."

"It's been a bumpy ride, but I wouldn't have it any other way," she said.

Many skills in demand

The federal government says its immigration plan will help Canadian businesses find people needed in key sectors, including in health care, building trades, manufacturing, and science, technology, education and math (STEM).

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser has said targeted draws will be used next year to bring applicants with the most in-demand skills to specific regions where they're needed.

The minister told Reuters that a key focus will be on recruiting doctors and nurses, in provinces that will work to ensure these newcomers' credentials are recognized quickly.

In terms of the manufacturing sector, the CME's Darby said there's high demand for both skilled and general labour, with more than 80,000 unfilled positions across Canada.

More competition for people

The BCC says its members — which include banks, mining companies and other large employers — have signalled immigration is key for finding needed personnel.

The council conducted a survey in the first quarter of the year that netted responses from 80 of its 170 members. The respondents included CEOs and other high-ranking business professionals.

Two-thirds of the respondents said they recruited staff directly via immigration, while the BCC said the rest hired immigrants who were already living here.

Neiman said Canada has benefited greatly from immigration for years and it remains one of Ottawa's strongest tools for addressing labour shortages.

But he said the country now faces more intense competition for people as other nations also face labour shortages.

"Canada really needs to step up its game in order to maintain its advantage," he said.

Ottawa appears to be listening: In its fall economic statement, the government said it would earmark $50 million in additional funding to deal with current backlogs and other issues impeding newcomers' speedy entry to Canada.

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser has announced a record new target for immigration. Experts Mikal Skuterud and Michael Haan discuss the measures of success for Canada’s immigration policies.

Asked about competition the country faces for talent, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said it could "not speculate" on what other nations are doing to attract newcomers.

"The level of immigration to Canada is a policy choice that needs to balance the benefits of immigration with the costs of delivering the program and capacity of our infrastructure," the department said in an email.

Challenges after arriving

Sweta Regmi, founder and CEO of Teachndo Career Consultancy in Sudbury, Ont., sees many newcomers lacking support in navigating the Canadian job market.

Canada's economy added 108,000 jobs in October, roughly 10 times what was expected. Still, an unexpectedly hot job market isn't enough to bring down the overall cost of living.

"The gap ... is in teaching you how to do the job search," said Regmi, a certified career and resume strategist, who sees a persistent issue that she also faced during her own immigration journey two decades ago.

There are programs that provide assistance to people, but Regmi said they are not always well matched to the needs of incoming job seekers.

Chahal found that same process to be a particular challenge as she worked to learn the quirks in a job market that she found more rigid in its hiring practices as compared to India.

The availability of affordable housing is an issue that has gripped domestic politics across Canada lately, but that is just as important for people moving to a new country.

Fraser, the immigration minister, told Reuters that Canada will focus on welcoming more skilled construction workers to help build new housing supply and on selecting newcomers for areas with the "absorptive capacity" to take them.

IRCC said "having adequate investment in settlement, housing and public services is paramount to not only the newcomers' long-term success, but also in ensuring we are delivering the same level of services to all Canadians."

Mikal Skuterud, an economics professor at the University of Waterloo, told CBC's The House it's "relatively easy" for the government to quickly increase the number of newcomers as compared to its ability to rapidly grow the stock of available housing.

Skuterud expects the relative price of housing across regions will be a factor in where many people decide to live.