“Why do we need immigrants?”
It’s a prevailing question in Canada and around the world — and one that requires an evidence-based response, according to Kareem El-Assal, an immigration researcher in Ottawa. This year, the federal government is aiming to welcome 330,800 new permanent residents, with further increases in the years to come.
And it’s a necessary action, said El-Assal, co-author of Can’t Go It Alone, a Conference Board of Canada report published this month.
An aging population and low birth rate mean the Canadian population will not be able to sustain the size of its labour force by 2040, with 13 million workers set to exit the workforce, mainly due to retirement, he said.
An often-used argument against immigration is that policymakers should be considering domestic alternatives more seriously, said El-Assal.
Making advances in technology, promoting an increased birthrate and lifting the participation rate of underrepresented labour pools such as women, Indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities are all important — but these alone are not the answer, he said.
“The evidence is very clear,” said El-Assal. “The best solution for Canada moving forward is to tap into Canadian workers to help lift the labour force participation of underrepresented groups… (but) we also need immigrants without any doubt. And we need to see how we can improve Canada's overall productivity performance because that's going to be the key to driving economic growth moving forward.”
Birthrates in Canada and other western countries remain low, due to a variety of reasons such as education, urbanization, family choice and birth control, he said. And encouraging Canadians to have more children to ease labour market issues is unrealistic, said El-Assal.
“Policies in other countries to try to lift the birthrate haven’t been very convincing in terms of doing so, so that option isn't realistic.”
Similarly, while tapping into underrepresented labour groups makes economic and moral sense, the number of workers available through that option is not enough to compensate for future market trends, he said. About 1.5 million women, 90,000 Indigenous people and 500,000 persons with disabilities could be available to join the workforce — and that’s simply not enough, said El-Assal.
Finally, the effects of automation and artificial intelligence on work remains speculative at this time, he said.
“We can't really say that through automation, it's going to be the panacea that's going to solve all of Canada's labour force issues that are a function of all the people leaving our current labour force over the coming decades.”
Shifting the conversation
Employers will need to become familiar with hiring workers from countries that have different economies and societies than Canada, said El-Assal.
“In recent decades, we've seen a shift in the source countries of immigrants to countries that have completely different economies from us,” he said. “From an employer's point of view, when most of your immigrants are coming from the likes of Asia, Africa, the Middle East… it's very difficult to measure what they bring to the table. And so that's the main reason that explains why immigrants have faced significant barriers in terms of entering the labour market and finding work commensurate with their skills.”
Canadian employers continue to unconsciously discriminate against immigrant workers — often under the guise of soft skills, said Kelly Thomson, a York University professor in Toronto who studies foreign professionals.
“That tends to be the new code for what used to be called ‘Canadian experience,’” she said. “What they really mean is ‘You have an accent’ or ‘I don't understand enough about your credential to know whether I feel comfortable with it or not.’”
Many small and medium-sized employers simply haven’t thought through their recruitment strategy, said Thomson. “Some employers say, for example, ‘We want people that you feel like you could go have a beer with,’” she said. “It’s not conscious discrimination; it’s systemic. It’s built into their system.”
While large employers have made strides in diversifying their workforces, they are more easily able to afford such initiatives, said El-Assal. “The challenge is for small and medium-sized employers across Canada,” he said. “They don't have the capacity. They have small HR teams. They don't have the expertise in terms of hiring and integrating a diverse workforce.”
“That's where we need to take it moving forward.”
Looking ahead, immigration strategy should emphasize immigrants’ value in terms of innovation and productivity, said Thomson.
And employers will need to learn to “grapple with specific immigrants,” rather than approach the issue as if migrant workers are simply a faceless, nameless mass of people, she said.
“It's not just that they're sort of a piece of interchangeable raw meat.”
Gradual increase ‘more prudent’
A tightening labour market could serve to turn the tide in favour of immigrant workers, according to Thomson. “The concern about soft skills seems to go away with the demand issue,” she said. “It's kind of like climate change. Until it's absolutely right in front of us, we have a hard time dealing with it… People are not going to hire for demand that's 10 years out.”
The lowest unemployment rate on record in Canada is benefitting immigrants, said El-Assal.“Their labour force participation has gone up; their employment rate has gone up; their unemployment rates have gone down and their wages are rising,” he said.
While the need is evident, it’s critical that immigrant levels continue to increase gradually to give the country enough time to adapt to a larger population, said El-Assal.
“We need to ensure we have enough housing in place, we have enough services in place, that our infrastructure can handle a growing population,” he said. “And then, most importantly… we need to ensure the Canadian public is receptive to immigration.”
Rapid increases in immigrant levels could cause extreme concern among certain sections of the population, said El-Assal. “A gradual increase is more prudent in terms of ensuring the public is supportive of what we're doing on the immigration front.”
Policymakers won’t be able to shift employer perception on their own, he said.
“This report isn't going to change the world. What we need are more grassroots initiatives from various organizations — mostly employers taking the lead themselves — but non-profit organizations engaged in immigration, (and) federal, provincial and municipal governments all working hand-in-hand to understand what the pain points are for employers, to help them better understand the benefits, to alleviate any concerns and biases that they may hold, and working together… so that employers can tap into more immigrant talents moving forward.”