With Canada facing the prospect of a growing number of retirees over the next decade, the federal government has unveiled a plan to increase immigration levels to help the country’s workforce transition.
In November, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen announced an ambitious three-year immigration plan aiming to boost levels to one per cent of the country’s population by 2020.
Canada is looking to welcome 310,000 new permanent residents next year, followed by 330,000 in 2019 and 340,000 in 2020, hoping to spur innovation while supporting the nation’s labour market needs in the face of slowing workforce growth and an aging population, he said.
In 2016 and 2017, the government’s immigration target was 300,000. About 60 per cent of the increase is in the economic category, with the remaining 40 per cent dedicated to family and humanitarian needs.
“This historic, multi-year, immigration levels plan will benefit all Canadians because immigrants will contribute their talents to support our economic growth and innovation, helping to keep our country at the forefront of the global economy,” said Hussen.
Canada’s approach is in stark contrast to other countries, he said.
“There are more and more countries that are closing their doors to people. They’re closing their doors to talent, to skills, and yes, to those who are seeking protection from persecution,” said Hussen.
“We are emphatically and unapologetically taking the opposite approach. We welcome the innovation, the innovative perspectives, the entrepreneurial spirits, and the unique skill sets of skilled newcomers. Immigration stands to be an economic difference-maker for Canada, both for our current needs but also in the long term.”
The federal government has set the table; now, it’s up to Canadian employers to invest in the process and embrace international talent, said Ruari Spillane, recruitment consultant at Moving2Canada in Vancouver.
“In spite of the multiculturalism in Canada, in spite of the diversity, there’s such a strong emphasis on local experience,” he said. “There’s a little bit of reluctance to engage in the immigration process, and as a nation of immigrants, we should all be familiar with how people are coming in, and (seek) more education in terms of how the process works and just how simplified it’s become... Canadian companies have a fantastic opportunity to innovate through international recruitment.”
Immigration as a solution
Immigration is becoming Canada’s differentiator, said Spillane.
“Canada has differentiated itself on being multicultural and pro-immigration, and the general feedback we seem to see is a lot of Canadians favour the fact that the country is so open,” he said.
“Canada as a nation is importing smart people. We’re bringing in more people, but we’re setting the standard a lot higher… A lot more of these people are contributing more in terms of entrepreneurship or they’re having more of a positive impact on the economy.”
A merit-based system committed to permanent residency works to both satisfy the aging economy and empower employers to seek employees who will benefit them long-term, said Spillane.
And population growth isn’t the main goal of the government’s plan; rather, its focus is on better life quality and healthy economic and labour growth, said Kareem El-Assal, senior research associate in immigration at the Conference Board of Canada in Ottawa.
“Right now, immigration makes up 90 per cent of our labour force growth, so it’s absolutely key,” he said. “We want to increase the levels gradually, not rapidly, because that allows us to basically adapt to ensure that we have enough jobs on the ground as well as supports in place for immigrants to succeed.”
Boosted immigration levels are needed to respond to the aging population and low birth rate, said El-Assal.
“Right now, immigration is making up about 75 per cent of Canada’s population growth and it’s going to make up 100 per cent of our population growth by the early 2030s, and that’s because by then, Canada’s death rate is going to exceed our birth rate.”
But it’s important to remember that immigration is not the only solution, he said.
“Immigration is not a panacea. It’s part of a multifaceted economic development approach that Canada will need to pursue to address the rapid number of baby boomers retiring.”
Last year, employees aged 55 and over made up 36 per cent of the working-age population and that figure is expected to climb to 40 per cent over the next decade, according to the 2017 Statistics Canada report The Impact of Aging on Labour Market Participation Rates. Factors include the aging of the baby boomer generation — born between 1946 and 1965 — as well as below-replacement fertility rates.
Though participation in the labour market has increased among older workers, the growth is not enough to offset the negative impacts of the decline in core-age workers, said the report.
The elimination of mandatory retirement rules has definitely helped, said Lisa Goodfellow, employment lawyer at Miller Thomson in Toronto.
“We are having a lot of people stay in the workplace longer now, but we can see from the demographics that a lot of them are going to be leaving in the next 10 years, so we are expecting labour shortages,” she said. “The fact that people are working longer and waiting longer to retire is helping… It’s delaying the impact somewhat. It’s coming in more gently than was expected.”
The detrimental impact of the aging workforce has lessened as more seniors work up to a decade past 65, said Jacquelyn Scott, professor of organizational management at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia.
However, a crisis point is on the near horizon, she said.
“Part of it we could be dealing with now, because those of us who are continuing into our early 70s, we need to get out of the way of some people that need to be promoted. The countervailing damage of us sticking around is that we are holding back some younger people who are ready for more responsibility.”
Five million Canadians will retire by 2035, according to Hussen.
“(Boosted immigration levels) help us to ease the great challenges of the coming years, such as the slowing labour force growth and labour shortages linked to Canada’s aging population,” he said.
“If we’re going to be able to commit to keep our commitments for health care, for pensions, and all of our other social programs, and to continue to grow our economy and meet our labour market needs in the decades to come, we must respond to this clear demographic challenge.”
Advice for HR
Employers in the private sector could benefit by getting on board in terms of recognizing foreign skills, said El-Assal.
“The biggest challenge is getting employers to recognize foreign education and to value foreign experience, because that’s the crux of the matter,” he said.
While immigration is a crucial strategy, so is providing training to young domestic workers, said Goodfellow, and employers need to stay abreast of changes to immigration programming while also investing in skilling up local workers.
“For the long-term good of our economy and our society, corporations should invest in providing those training opportunities themselves.”
Domestic workers definitely require further skills training as AI and technological improvements continue to alter the look of the future workforce, said El-Assal.
“We’re going to have to be cognizant of the fact that automation and other forms of technological disruption are going to impact our labour market, and so we’ll have to keep that in the back of our minds,” he said.
Flexibility in workplace policy will also be critical going forward, said Scott.
“Employers have to be very, very flexible... You need to design your incentives to work for your industry sector and your population, in terms of where your workforce is going to be drawn from.”
Building inclusive workplaces
The most appropriate strategies to foster diversity and inclusion amongst staff in Canada still remain subjective, according to Anna Kostecka, senior manager of learning initiatives at the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC).
“There has been a lot of conversation about the business case and the moral imperative for diversity and inclusion, and we know that organizations do get that. But the challenge comes in the execution: How exactly do you create an inclusive workplace?”
TRIEC has launched an Inclusive Workplace Competencies framework to help “fill the gap,” she said, and it sets out expected behaviours through 15 competencies that define the knowledge, skills and behaviours needed for an inclusive workplace.
The competencies are framed under self, team and organizational behaviours. They include: advocating for diverse perspectives (self); collaborating in diverse teams to foster productive outcomes (team); and responding to inappropriate and non-inclusive behaviour (organization).
“It’s taking the conversation to the next level… It’s really about providing the ‘how’ and a clear language,” said Kostecka. “My hope is that this model will help organizations and people within them to move from intention to action.”
Specific competencies or skills expected from employees can be added to job descriptions or performance management materials, she said.
“You are able to be very explicit about what you expect,” said Kostecka. “From this abstract ‘diversity and inclusion,’ it becomes very concrete and focused on behaviours.”
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