Feds launching initiatives to improve immigration

Focus on skilled workers, credentials, job bank
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/07/2012

The federal government is promising to make Canada’s immigration system fast and flexible by focusing more on skilled workers, improving foreign credential recognition, building a massive job bank and better meeting labour market demands.

“In short, the government is committed to strengthening the immigration system to make it truly proactive, targeted, fast and efficient in a way that will sustain Canada’s economic growth and deliver prosperity for the future,” said the Economic Action Plan 2012 released with the federal budget.

Until further details are unveiled, it’s difficult to know how effective these steps will be but they bode well for the country, according to experts.

“We definitely need to be fast. There’s absolutely no doubt we have an elephant of a process and we have structures and systems in place that need to be changed, such as looking at people who we need first as opposed to people who are first in line,” said Ratna Omidvar, president of Maytree in Toronto, which promotes equity and prosperity through leadership-building.

It is a move in the right direction, said Cheryl Knight, executive director and CEO of the Petroleum Human Resources Council in Calgary.

“A lot of it will be in the implementation — lots of people are looking to see the details and how quickly things come about. The movement on trades is a really important improvement.”

The government plans to introduce a new stream to facilitate the entry of skilled tradespersons. That’s been a real problem given the way the points system is set up, said Charles Beach, professor of economics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

“It really is geared towards accommodating, if you wish, white collar skills, the university and college training and stuff like that, whereas many of the shortages that are occurring, particularly out West with the huge growth of the energy sector, pipelines that sort of thing, are skilled tradesmen.”

The Federal Skilled Worker Program has also had a huge backlog of applicants so Economic Action Plan 2012 proposes to return applications and refund up to $130 million in fees paid by applicants who applied under previous criteria established prior to Feb. 27, 2008.

“We don’t have an effective system of bringing in skilled workers that are needed for this economy in a timely way because of the backlog, because of the queue, going in an orderly lineup,” said Knight. “So, really, this is an effective way to have our system be able to respond more quickly and more directly, related to skills and demand — although it does have some unfortunate consequences for people.”

The Federal Skilled Worker point system will also be reformed to reflect the importance of younger immigrants with Canadian work experience and better language skills, said the government.

The current point system is rigged so the older a person is and, therefore, the more experience he has, the more points he gets, said Omidvar. And it’s really important to have people who can speak English well and adapt to the workplace quickly and efficiently.

“I welcome the raising of language levels and more muscular testing.”

However, this is an area where flexibility would be appreciated, so people are also evaluated for their character, determination and courage, even if their language skills aren’t 100 per cent, she said.

“Without some flexibility in issues like language testing, we’re going to see a slow shift away from the rising economies of the world to some of the old economies, such as the U.K., Australia, U.S.A.”

Language can be a big problem, especially with Canada shifting from manufacturing to services, said Beach, who was also co-author of the C.D. Howe paper Toward Improving Canada’s Skilled Immigration Policy: An Evaluation Approach. A person learning to install a car windshield, for example, doesn’t have to be all that fluent but “if you’re hiring a doctor, a lawyer or an accountant or anything like this, you want someone who is very knowledgeable in the nuances of the language because so much is at stake.”

The government also plans to introduce a pre-assessment process to deal with degrees and diplomas that aren’t necessarily relevant to Canadian employers by working alongside licensing and regulating bodies, according to Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney in the London Free Press.

It’s certainly an excellent initiative, said Beach.

“Labour market regulations are largely provincial, so all these professional associations come under provincial jurisdictions and, we all know, bringing the feds and provinces together to work things out can be done but it’s always slow.”

There are also many workers in the oil and gas industry, such as those doing hydraulic fracturing, who have no mandatory credentials or formal designations so they are considered unskilled, said Knight.

“The labour shortage issue goes beyond foreign credential recognition to the ability to recognize experience and competencies,” she said. “I would like to see it going beyond so-called ‘skilled workers’ to workers who have skills that are needed but not necessarily post-secondary-educated people.”

The government is also planning to explore the development of a job bank or pool of skilled workers ready to work in Canada. The idea of demand meeting supply makes sense and should have been done several years ago, said Beach.

“Employers can access it and see who’s there and deal with it immediately. I think that’s great. (However) it doesn’t solve the problem that employers are looking for short-run skills and needs as opposed to the longer run, so I wouldn’t want to see that totally replace a Federal Skilled Worker screen-based system.”

The job bank would ensure employers can quickly satisfy their needs and people have jobs instead of languishing for months or years looking for work, said Jeffrey Reitz, professor of ethics and immigration studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. However, one of the reasons the point system worked well was it brought people into the country and let them find jobs themselves, rather than waiting for employers to find people, he said.

“And given their high levels of education and other characteristics, knowledge of the official language, and so on… they actually did fairly well, particularly over longer periods of time, with more time to adjust.”

The government is also looking to better align the Temporary Foreign Worker Program with labour market demands while ensuring businesses make “all reasonable efforts” to recruit from the domestic labour force first.

Hiring Canadian skilled workers is preferred, said Knight, especially considering the costs and challenges involved with hiring foreign workers, but there has been limited success in appealing to people from all parts of Canada.

“We really would benefit if we could improve the mobility of workers from areas of higher unemployment to areas of lower unemployment but there’s just some parts of the country… where they’re not accustomed to having to move outside of their hometown, let alone their province, for work.”

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