Why Canada is Facing an Exodus of Skilled Migrants
The recent study conducted by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship in 2022 sheds light on a disconcerting trend among new immigrants, suggesting a potential decline in their enthusiasm for Canada compared to previous decades. The study reveals that more than one-fifth of recent immigrants are contemplating leaving the country. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced among immigrants under the age of 34, with a notable 30 percent expressing a strong likelihood of departing from Canada within the next two years. This concerning issue has garnered attention in prominent publications such as the Toronto Star and National Post, emphasizing the potential ramifications of losing skilled and talented migrants on Canada’s economic growth, demographic balance, and social support system. As part of this ongoing discussion, low retention rates among international students and graduates, who constitute a significant portion of Canada’s skilled migrant population, has received widespread attention (Akbar 2022; Garcia-Sitton 2022; Ortiz 2014).
The Context of International Students
The admission of international students has tripled over the last decade, reaching 807,750 in 2022 (ICEF Monitor 2023; Canada International Student Statistics 2023). This substantial increase can be attributed to Canadian policies prioritizing the attraction of global talent to bolster the knowledge-based economy. These policies aim to harness the potential of international students, leveraging their Canadian education, work experience, and language proficiency to position them as potential sources of highly skilled workers and future permanent residents (Arthur 2017).
The majority of international students historically saw Canada as their long-term residence. The 2018 survey conducted by the CBIE (2018) indicated that approximately 70% of international students intended to remain and work in Canada upon graduation, with 60% planning to apply for permanent residency. However, recent research reveals a stark contrast, with only about 3 in 10 international students who arrived in Canada in 2000 or later achieving landed immigrant status within 10 years (Crossman et al. 2022). This discrepancy raises questions about the effectiveness of Canadian immigration policies in retaining international talent.
Reasons behind Low Retention Rate
Overlooking Post-Arrival Support
While federal and provincial governments have implemented robust policies to facilitate the admission and employment of international students, which have included the International Education Strategy (2019-2024), Edu-Canada, on- and off-campus work permits, and the Post Graduate Work Permit Program, there has been a noticeable lack of emphasis on supporting their transition and integration during their educational journey and transition to the workforce (Akbar 2022). Canada boasts a well-organized federal government-funded settlement service sector, offering free language and employment training, networking opportunities, referrals, and information sessions for permanent residents (Flynn & Bauder 2015). Regrettably, as temporary migrants, international students are ineligible for these services. They often rely on their post-secondary institutions for academic, employment, health, and limited immigration services (Arthur 2017). However, these institutions too often lack adequate resources and staff to provide the broad range of services required by the students, nor are there any accountability measures in place to ensure that these services are in place (Akbar 2022, 2023).
Outcome of Canadian Education
Often the frustration of restricted employment opportunities as well as their qualifications and foreign work experience going unrecognized influence immigrants’ decisions to leave the country (ICC 2022). Interestingly, these factors should not apply to international students and graduates who possess Canadian education and training, language proficiency, and familiarity with Canadian society. However, many international students still face labor market challenges during their studies and post-graduation. Recent research by the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) found that 43% of international students faced challenges in finding paid employment (CBIE 2021; ICEF Monitor 2018). These difficulties often stem from students’ inability to grasp Canadian employers’ expectations and employers’ unfamiliarity with regulations related to hiring international students (CBIE 2021). A study by Statistics Canada reveals that former international students earned 20% less than their domestic counterparts in the first year after graduation and 9% less five years after graduation (Choi, Hao, and Chan 2021). Unfortunately, international students and graduates increasingly find themselves in precarious, low-wage employment situations (Vosko 2020). This indicates that the value of Canadian education must be better translated into meaningful career opportunities for international students. Bridging the gap between employer expectations and international students’ skills is essential.
The Implication of Temporary Status
Even when employers value their education and skills, international students and graduates still encounter difficulties in securing long-term job opportunities due to their temporary status (Akbar 2023). Furthermore, the lack of employer awareness about the Post-Graduation Work Permit (PGWP) program adversely affects international graduates’ career prospects. The PGWP typically spans from eight months to three years, coinciding with the typical duration of university/college programs, thus providing graduates with a limited timeframe to secure full-time employment in their chosen field. Once the PGWP expires, international graduates are unable to work unless their employers undergo a complex and paperwork-intensive process known as a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) to retain them, a path often avoided by employers due to its intricacies and costs (Akbar 2023). Nevertheless, international students often require multiple temporary visas before becoming eligible for permanent residency (Dennler 2022). This perpetuates a cycle of temporariness and limited employment prospects for an extended duration, leading many to consider leaving Canada in pursuit of better job opportunities.
The potential exodus of skilled immigrants, as highlighted by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship’s recent study, poses a risk to the country’s economic growth, demographic balance, and social support systems. Likewise, the underutilization of international students’ talents and the obstacles they encounter in integrating in the labour market and transitioning to permanent residency raise concerns about the effectiveness of current policies and support mechanisms. Given the federal government’s goal of maintaining high immigration levels to address labor shortages, supporting international students’ transition and employment integration is not only advantageous for Canada but also crucial for preserving its reputation as a top global destination for higher education. Canada stands at a critical juncture in its efforts to attract and retain global talent. The fundamental question is whether Canada will seize the opportunity to unlock the full potential of these individuals or allow them to depart, taking their skills and aspirations elsewhere. The answer to this question will not only shape Canada’s position in a rapidly evolving global landscape but also determine the nation’s trajectory for years to come.
Marshia Akbar, a Research Area Lead at Toronto Metropolitan University’s CERC in Migration and Integration Program, specializes in labor market integration research for migrants in Canada. Her current project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s Insight Development Grants, explores the transition and labor market integration of international students in Canada.
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