The New Immigration Minister’s Challenge

Although he has only been in the job for a few days, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Monte Solberg has correctly identified one of the key challenges facing Canada’s immigration system over the next decade.

In some brief comments reported in the press last week, Minister Solberg indicated that his Conservative government is unlikely to drastically change the overall levels of immigration established by the Liberals in recent years. (Last year’s target number was 245,000 immigrants.) He also did not express a desire to re-visit the Liberals’ decision of last year to increase the number of family reunification visas issued. So sponsors seeking to bring over their parents or grandparents may hope to benefit from slightly better processing times in the future.

What Minister Solberg did indicate was that he wants to see a better match between the type of skilled immigrants we attract and the needs of Canadian employers who are often desperate for experienced, skilled individuals.

“I think partly maybe it’s the mix,” Solberg said. “But it’s also using some of the other tools that we have to address some of the problems we have – like the work visas.”

“Maybe ultimately if they’re here for a time and they’re doing a good job, well, permanently land them,” he said.

On paper, one would think the Canadian immigration system, which seeks to have 60% of those granted permanent residence each year come through the “economic class” or skilled worker and business immigrant categories, would provide a workable solution to our skilled labour shortage. However, recent experience has indicated there is a definite disconnect between the types of skilled immigrants that are qualifying and the kinds of workers Canadian employers are seeking.

We have heard for years the stories of PhD’s who come here from overseas only to end up driving taxis or working as security guards. While at the same time, employers in certain sectors – construction, health care, and energy and mining come to mind – are intensifying their pleas for help in finding the kinds of skills they are in desperate need of.

Canada’s skilled worker immigrants have mostly come in recent years from countries like China, India, Pakistan and South Korea. Therefore the question must be asked whether our employers are reluctant to take a chance on individuals whose experience and skills are obtained exclusively in Asia. Or is it cultural differences and language barriers that are preventing these individuals from making a full contribution to the Canadian labour market?

Regardless of the causes, it is worth considering alternate approaches to ensure that our economic class immigrants are providing the maximum benefit possible to our economy.

One such approach was alluded to by the Minister in his comments. Rather than seeking to attract skilled worker immigrants who apply from overseas and never set foot in Canada until they land as immigrants, should we be building a system driven by the specific needs of Canadian employers?

If so, building such a system will not be easy. One of the challenges is fashioning a system that can respond in the timeframes required by the labour market. Ask any construction company in need of project managers, carpenters or other skilled individuals when they need their people and they will tell you, “yesterday!” Meanwhile, it typically takes 2 years or more for a skilled immigrant’s visa application to be processed.

Work visas can certainly be processed more quickly. But they also require employers to have done the groundwork of recruiting the applicants and offering them jobs.

The key question is whether employers, industry and the provinces can take on the level of involvement required to make an “employer-driven” immigration system work. Thus far, it has been accomplished on a relatively small scale by “provincial nominee programs” like BC’s. But combined, these programs represent less than 10% of the skilled immigrants Canada accepts each year.

It is an open question as to whether an effective employer-driven system can exist on the scale of Canada’s current economic immigration program. And it will no doubt be a question our new Immigration Minister will have to ponder over the coming months.