Address Canada's biggest people challenges by keeping global talent from heading elsewhere

As released in The Toronto Star

Canada remains one of the world’s most sought-after destinations for international talent. More than 620,000 international students were studying in Canada in 2021, according to data from Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada — and that number has only grown year over year.

They’re drawn by “Canada’s reputation as a safe, stable and tolerant country and the quality of the educational system,” according to a recent survey by the Canadian Bureau for International Education. The same survey found that 60 per cent of international students planned to apply for permanent residency after graduation.

The trouble is, we don’t make it especially easy for international students to come, let alone live and work here after they graduate. The pandemic only exacerbated brutal backlogs in immigration and visa processing.

Recent research from RBC Economics & Thought Leadership found that international students are lost in an overcomplicated immigration system, with no clear, quick pathway to study permits or permanent residency and work once they finish school. It means they’re less likely to stay, and increasingly means potential students-turned-future-workers are opting not to come at all.

This matters to Canada in a big way. A generation of workers is aging out of the labour market. Critical professions like health care and the skilled trades continue to experience persistent labour shortages. And misalignment in how we train workers, as well as what we train them in, is undermining labour market productivity.

If Canada doesn’t course correct soon, we’ll fall behind our peers and fail when it comes to solving our biggest challenges.

The benefits are hard to argue with. International students contributed over $22 billion to the Canadian economy and supported more than 218,000 jobs in 2018. Since 2016, enrolment growth in Canada’s post-secondary institutions has been entirely driven by international students. And foreign students’ unsubsidized tuition fees are a vital source of revenue for Canada’s institutions, at a time when there is enormous pressure on their balance sheets.

So how do we get back on track?

First, as peers like the U.S. and U.K. make it easier for students to study and stay, we need to do the same. The federal government is temporarily lifting the 20-hour work cap on international students and automating some visa extension applications, which is a good start. The world’s top talent won’t wait months for a work or study permit when they can get one in days from the U.K. Post-secondary and financial institutions can help speed things up by collaborating with the government to validate financial guarantees or education credentials.

Second, we’re overly dependent on international students from China and India. We need to do more to recruit students from South America, other Asian countries and francophone nations, so we can expand the talent pool and mitigate risk.

Third, we need to focus more on in-demand skills for Canada’s current and future labour market, and less on recruitment targets. Partnerships with organizations like the Business + Higher Education Roundtable (BHER) enable employers and post-secondary institutions to align recruitment with labour market needs and encourage program growth around in-demand careers, such as the net-zero economy, STEM fields and health care.

Finally, we have to refocus on the international student experience. Provinces and municipalities need to channel more resources into affordable housing, transportation and health care — including mental health — to help international students while they’re here. Creating more opportunities for international students to participate in work-integrated learning, also part of BHER’s mandate, could improve their career prospects and their overall Canadian experience.

Correcting course now before global talent flows elsewhere will help Canada address not only its most pressing labour and economic growth challenges, but remain relevant and resilient in our pandemic recovery and the fight against climate change — and the next big challenges that come along.