Friday, March 9, 2012

Choosing the right new Canadian

Last updated Thursday, Mar. 08, 2012 10:29PM EST

Last week, Immigration and Citizenship Minister Jason Kenney laid out a plan to help Canada find the right immigrants for the right jobs. These changes have the potential to accelerate the rate at which new immigrants can get on their feet and the rate at which Canada can benefit from their contributions.

Job opportunities in the trades abound, so choose immigrants who can work in skilled trades. Canada has an aging population and predicted labour shortages, so choose those who are young and will have a long career in this country. Employment and economic outcomes are better for those who speak one of Canada’s official languages, so choose immigrants who already have the fluency required to work in their occupation.

These proposals are grounded in common sense. And they’re likely to give Canada what it needs, without sentencing talented and skilled new Canadians to languish in survival jobs.

The changes, of course, will have consequences, whether intended or unintended, so their implementation must be carefully considered. With regards to age, for example, Canada must find a balance between immigrants who are not so young that they will compete with recent graduates against whom they might be disproportionately disadvantaged, yet young enough, qualified enough and skilled enough to adapt to Canada’s labour market.

While raising the bar for language requirements may help employment outcomes, it will also have an impact on the mix of countries from which we draw immigrants. A recent study by University of Waterloo economist Mikal Skuterud and his Australian co-author, Andrew Clarke, finds that, in Australia, where language requirements are high, close to 20 per cent of immigrants are drawn from the United Kingdom. In Canada, it’s roughly 5 per cent. We can conclude that the real impact of increasing language levels will be on the mix of source countries, with possibly more immigrants being drawn from English-speaking countries such as the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Canada needs to consider the long-term implications of this shift. The scope and scale of our demographic diversity has been an essential ingredient of our multicultural success. This diversity is also a natural, if somewhat latent, link to new markets and new products. As the economies of Russia, India, China and Brazil continue to grow, it will become more important that we use all our assets, including our immigrant ambassadors, to further our interests in these regions.

So flexibility, not rigidity, will be the key to our success. Mr. Kenney is proposing that different occupations require different levels of language proficiency. This is appropriate. A flexible language grid will evaluate an applicant’s language skills against what’s required for their occupation – a university professor will require higher levels than a pipefitter. It will help ensure that Canada continues to draw immigrants from a variety of source countries.

The minister may also consider a stream for immigrants whose language may fall short by a small margin but who have demonstrated a willingness to learn before they arrive. This willingness to learn, to adapt and to change is possibly the secret ingredient to any immigrant’s success, and it’s hard to codify in a rigid selection grid.

On the other hand, in some areas, we’ve had too much flexibility. In recent years, Canada’s immigration system has become increasingly regionalized. Where Ottawa used to play the principal role in selecting immigrants, today’s applicants can choose from more than 50 immigration streams operated by the provinces and territories. The system is complicated and fragmented, leading to confusion for both public servants and immigrants. It’s time to bring some coherence to this fragmentation.

While we look forward to a new immigrant tomorrow, we must keep in mind the immigrant of today. We know that he or she has a hard time finding work that’s in keeping with his or her education and experience. This means that our current investment in the efforts of settlement organizations, universities and colleges in the form of internships, co-ops, mentoring and bridging programs must not waiver. As we look forward to a more finely tuned selection system, we must not forget that we have a commitment to those who are already here. In the short term or the long term, their success is our success.

We must remember that immigration selection is not simply about headhunting, but about nation-building.

Ratna Omidvar is president of Maytree.