Attracting skilled immigrants
The struggle to lure trained foreign workers
Last Updated September 14, 2004
Edwardo Alvarez, stocking shelves in a Toronto hotel in 2000, studied aerospace engineering in Russia but couldn't find related work in Canada. (CP Photo/Tannis Toohey)
Canada needs to attract hundreds of thousands of skilled workers from abroad to make up a labour shortfall. Since the 1990s, the federal immigration program has targeted people who have the experience and training that are in demand, including doctors and other health professionals, information technology workers and skilled trades people.
Skilled workers now make up more than half of all immigrants, 137,085 out of a total 250,346 in the most recent statistics from 2001. They were most likely to come from China, Pakistan, India, Taiwan and Iran.
The number of them who gained permanent residency during the past decade has also jumped but it hasn't been enough. Many doctors, lawyers and other professionals struggle to get recognition for their foreign credentials and are forced into unskilled jobs to survive.
As well, smaller communities have a hard time luring these valued workers. Skilled immigrants tend to flock to the biggest cities, with about 60 per cent moving to Toronto, 15 per cent to Vancouver and 13 per cent to Montreal in 2003.
Doctors struggle for accreditation
Although many Canadians list health care and doctor shortages as top concerns, foreign-trained doctors and other health professionals complain that they can't work in the country.
There may be as many as 10,000 international medical graduates in Canada mostly from Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe yet many have been unable to land residencies or training that leads to jobs.
The process to have international medical credentials recognized is long and arduous. Foreign doctors must first pass the Medical Council of Canada's examination of basic medical knowledge. Then they take certification exams by the College of Family Physicians of Canada or the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. In most provinces, graduates of foreign medical schools must take two to six years of postgraduate medical training at a Canadian university. In 2002, only 16.7 per cent of foreign medical graduates got into the training, according to statistics from the Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials. Only 83 of them landed one of the 1,260 internships available to medical postgraduates.
To address the problem, the federal government is negotiating with professional associations to try to speed up the accreditation of foreign doctors. Critics also want Ottawa to create national standards for accreditation, and pump more money into upgrading the skills of these professionals.
In March 2004, Health Canada pledged $4 million to establish a national program. The funds includes:
- $179,000 over three years to the Medical Council of Canada to identify and promote common screening criteria.
- $150,000 to the Medical Council of Canada to develop evaluation tools.
- $112,000 to the Association of International Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario to develop a website for international medical graduates.
- $125,000 to fund the Medical Council of Canada's development of an on-line self-assessment test.
- $3 million to help provinces and territories assess unlicensed medical graduates living in Canada.
The amount drew immediate ire from the Canadian Medical Association, which said it was far too little money and wouldn't do much to help foreign doctors already living in Canada.
Canada gave permanent resident status to 3,965 family doctors, physician specialists and health managers from 1990 to 1998.
Countries compete fiercely for IT workers
International competition for information technology workers has been strong during the last decade.
The United States and many countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) launched programs to attract IT workers, including computer engineers, computer programmers, systems analysts, and electrical and electronics engineers.
One of Ottawa's main programs to bring them to Canada falls under its Innovation Strategy, launched in 2002 to boost research and innovation. Among its goals, it aims to lure foreign IT and other skilled workers by:
- Boosting the number of highly skilled workers immigrating permanently to Canada.
- Working with provinces and territories to develop a national approach to the recognition of foreign credentials.
- Encouraging business to more actively recruit qualified immigrants.
Almost three per cent of total employment in Canada 387,500 jobs was in IT-related occupations, the 2001 census showed. Statistics Canada says that about 15 per cent of these workers, more than 60,000, immigrated to Canada in the 1990s. They came mostly from Asia and Europe.
Construction boom worsens trades shortage
Construction boomed in Canada during the last few years, worsening a long-standing shortage of workers in certain trades. The industry has historically depended on immigrants, especially from Portugal, Italy and, more recently, Poland.
Between 1990 and 1998, 17,995 people came to Canada to work in the trades. But the demand for more bricklayers, cabinetmakers, welders, plumbers and others remains strong.
An industry lobby group in Toronto, for example, urged the federal government in November 2003 to legalize underground workers. The Greater Toronto Homebuilders Association wanted legal status granted to thousands of illegal immigrants who work in the city's construction industry, yet lack medical coverage and other social benefits and live in perpetual fear of being deported.
Immigration changes favour skilled workers
When the federal government introduced new immigration laws in 2002, it made a number of changes that made it easier for skilled workers to come to Canada.
The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act places increased stress on education, language ability and skilled work experience. It made it easier for people with a trade certificate or a second degree, and for highly educated younger workers to qualify.
Skilled workers, under the new act:
- Fall under the economic class of immigrants, which also includes entrepreneurs, investors and the self-employed.
- Have professional or technical abilities that are highly sought after or transferable. Sometimes they already have job offers from a Canadian company.
- Must meet criteria that give points for education levels, official languages ability and occupational skills. They need at least a year of related full-time, paid experience and enough money to support themselves in Canada.
Statistics Canada shows that two-thirds of IT workers came under this class, compared with one-third of doctors and health managers, and only a fifth of trades workers.
Other skilled workers immigrated under the refugee, family or other classes.
Provinces try to fast-track foreign professionals
Most provincial and territorial governments have signed immigration deals with Ottawa to fast track the citizenship applications of skilled workers.
Under the Provincial Nominee Program, provinces and territories may nominate a person for a permanent resident visa on the grounds that the individual's skills are in particular demand there.
These immigrants are expected to live in the province that nominated them in order to contribute their particular employment skills.
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