Help Wanted: What the provinces can do to get more skilled workers

Canada needs more skilled workers. What the provinces can do to get them here

Rodney MacDonald is a busy man. The Nova Scotia MLA is the provincial minister of tourism, culture and heritage. He's also the minister of health promotion and the minister responsible for the province's Heritage Property Act. And in January, Premier John Hamm named him minister of immigration as well.

Given that Nova Scotia attracts only about 1,700 immigrants a year, you might think being sworn in as its immigration minister is akin to being named the minister of fisheries for Saskatchewan. But immigration is no laughing matter in the province. In fact, MacDonald's latest portfolio might well be the most important position in the entire cabinet when it comes to Nova Scotia's economic survival. “We want to see more immigration coming into the province,” says MacDonald. “We are facing declining birth rates and potential labour shortages, and we need to address that by attracting more immigrants. This is an issue that is on the front burner.” To that end, MacDonald has set himself a lofty goal: doubling immigration to Nova Scotia by 2010.

MacDonald is the only provincial immigration minister in Atlantic Canada. His presence and message are signs that Nova Scotia now recognizes the economic importance of immigrants. But more broadly, his new position can be seen as a sign that provinces across the country are taking on a more significant role in how immigration policy operates in Canada. Manitoba and Quebec, in particular, already exert considerable control over their own immigration policies, and many other provinces are following their lead. Given the legendary dysfunction of the federal department of citizenship and immigration, this latest trend can only be seen as a positive development.

Nova Scotia is certainly not the only province to be facing a fertility rate below the rate of natural replacement. On average, Canadian women are having only 1.5 children each, far below the 2.1 necessary for a population to sustain itself. The numbers mean the labour supply will slowly shrink as the nation ages. By 2011, Ottawa estimates that all new growth in the labour market will have to come from immigrants. In other words, the future of the Canadian marketplace will soon depend for its very survival on a steady supply of foreign-born workers.

The possibility of a stagnant or declining pool of labour in the absence of immigration should give Canadians pause for thought. Rich nations with older demographics and less immigration, such as Italy and Japan, will soon experience permanent population declines. Russia is already shrinking. Over time, these countries will find their place on the world market supplanted by younger countries with growing populations and expanding markets. But Canada, a nation with a long history of immigration and an excess of geography, need not face such a future.

It's true that the 235,826 immigrants Canada accepted last year represent important challenges in terms of their economic and social integration with the rest of the country. And these difficulties have spurred critics of immigration to call for a reduction in our intake. But given the backdrop of our looming labour-market necessity, creating new barriers and lowering our numbers are not the answers.

One of the most pressing immigration challenges is the fact that 76% of all newcomers have chosen to settle in the three major urban centres: Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. The so-called MTV Problem has put pressure on the three big cities to integrate a large number of immigrants while denying most other areas of the country the benefits of an expanding pool of labour that immigration can bring.

Just over 1% of all immigrants to Canada chose to settle in Atlantic Canada in 2004. Nova Scotia received half of those, but, based on past statistics, the bulk of them could be expected to pack up and leave. Nova Scotia's immigrant retention rate is a mere 40%, the second-lowest in Canada and far below the national average of 82%. So the province not only fails to attract immigrants in any great number; it has trouble keeping them. “Immigration is the key to our future economic success,” says Peter Kelly, mayor of the Halifax Regional Municipality and a leading voice in encouraging greater provincial attention to the issue. Citing the steady flow of out-migration by native-born Maritimers, as well as the aging population, Kelly adds: “We have to find a way to recoup those losses and rebuild our labour force. And that means finding ways to be attractive to immigrants.”

It's an argument heard as frequently on the shop floor as at city hall. Stephen Plummer is president and chief operating officer of IMP Group International Inc. The company, owner of CanJet Airlines as well as Execaire corporate jet services, is one of the largest private employers in Nova Scotia and has an insatiable appetite for skilled workers in the aerospace field. “One of the things I worry about all the time is Canada's declining workforce,” says Plummer. “I don't see things reversing themselves. Immigration has got to be part of the solution.”

Plummer's company has hired an entire class of aerospace graduates from one Canadian college, but it's still not enough. To fill critical skill needs, such as engineering, tool design, avionics technology and computer applications, Plummer has also recruited in the United Kingdom, eastern Europe and China. “Our company has had to go outside our borders to find the expertise we need,” he says. And as an employer, he wants Nova Scotia to move much faster in recruiting immigrants. “I applaud the government's moves,” says Plummer, “but the targets they have set so far are too modest.”

The issue of where immigrants choose to settle is a complex one. Brian Lee Crowley, president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a Halifax-based think-tank, argues that high taxes and over-regulation in the Atlantic region is a major barrier to attracting new entrepreneurs. “The reason we don't get more immigrants is the same reason our unemployment is too high and our young people leave,” he says. Crowley considers economic policy to be the key to attracting immigrants. The provision of integration services, such as English as a second language and skills training also figure in the decision-making process. And immigrants are drawn to areas were there are already large numbers of their own community, which is what makes Toronto and other big cities so attractive.

Complicating these issues is the fact that the federal government has no real ability or motivation to force immigrants to pick Halifax over Toronto. While Joe Volpe, the current federal immigration minister, has talked about encouraging more newcomers to settle in smaller centres, he lacks any real coercive powers. “Ottawa has failed in terms of encouraging immigrants to settle in alternative areas other than MTV,” observes Crowley. “Only the provinces can take this argument to heart.”

In fact, there are many aspects of immigration that have been poorly handled under federal control. Citizenship and Immigration Canada has a long history of inefficiency, bad policy and political in-fighting. Ben Trister is a prominent immigration lawyer with Borden Ladner Gervais LLP in Toronto and also serves as chair of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce's task force on immigration policy. “If you look at the statistics, it seems pretty clear that the department has been in a downward spiral for a number of years,” he says. “They can no longer deliver people through the system that meet the needs of the Canadian economy.”

Point in fact for Trister is the massive backlog of unprocessed visa applications that has rendered the federal system sclerotic. Estimated at up to 120,000 in 2003–“and not getting any smaller,” according to Trister–this backlog is responsible for the lengthy wait times at the various overseas offices where visa applicants must submit their forms to the Canadian government. The wait can be up to five years or more, depending on the location. Many immigration lawyers, Trister included, argue that such delays have created an unofficial quota system by discouraging residents in certain countries from applying to Canada.

What makes this federal blockage all the more pressing for the Canadian economy is that the demographic crunch of low birth rates and an aging population is not unique to our country. Most developed nations in Europe and Asia face the same problem. That means Canada will soon be facing much stiffer international competition for immigrants. “Highly desirable immigrants will not wait five years; they will go somewhere else,” says Trister. Somewhere like Australia, which accepts less than half the number of immigrants per year that Canada does, and is able to processes its applications far faster. This makes Australia more attractive to the best international workers that Canada needs as well.

Also putting Canada at the bottom of the list for impatient and hotly sought-after immigrants are policies that force the holders of temporary work visas (immigrants who have entered the country legally and are currently working) to leave the country in order to apply for permanent residency status. Trister points out that the European Union allows workers with five years of service to stay on a permanent basis, without having to leave and return.

Add to these bureaucratic inefficiencies the curious case of Judy Sgro, the former immigration minister who resigned from cabinet in January following a pair of scandals involving the alleged preferential treatment of immigrants who were associated with her campaign office. None of the accusations have been proven in court and Sgro has fired back at her accusers.

What's most striking about the entire mess is that it appears the minister was undone by her own department. A steady stream of brown envelopes from department officials to the media kept the issue in the news until it finally shattered Sgro's cabinet career. Even Diane Ablonczy, the Conservative party immigration critic who led the calls to have Sgro step down, admits that how the scandal was revealed is disturbing. “It does trouble me that the disclosures about the minister's conduct came from Liberal insiders and people in her department,” says Ablonczy. “This suggests that ministers will have to be more concerned with watching their own backs than with running the department. And that's not an effective system for Canadians or democracy.”

It seems clear that the federal immigration system is crumbling under the weight of its own processes and internal politics. And since no immediate solutions to these problems are in the offing from Ottawa, it is now up to the provinces to chart their own course.

The key to provincial plans for taking a greater role in immigration is the provincial nominee program. The innovation allows provinces to select their own immigration candidates separate from the backlogged pool of permanent visa applicants overseen by Ottawa. The selection criteria can be based on the unique circumstances of the provincial labour market or other factors the individual provinces find desirable. The federal government's involvement is limited to the security, health and documentation checks that are standard for all immigrants. That makes the process considerably faster and allows the provinces to make their case directly with potential immigrants to avoid the MTV problem.

No province has seized the opportunities presented by the provincial nominee program better than Manitoba. “We need to focus on immigration to grow our economy,” says Nancy Allan, that province's labour and immigration minister, making the same arguments MacDonald does. But Allan can point to some real accomplishments since 1998, when Manitoba first began accepting nominees. “Our nominee program started off with 600. This year will see 7,500,” she says. “Our goal is 10,000 immigrants by 2006, and we will definitely meet that target.” Manitoba attracts more immigrants than other provinces with comparable populations. And most of these are nominees deliberately selected by the province.

The fact that Manitoba can negotiate the total number of immigrants it lands each year puts it close to Quebec in terms of immigration autonomy. However, Quebec's system is far more expensive, since it actively recruits French-speaking newcomers using nine international Quebec-run offices. Manitoba's, on the other hand, appears a much cheaper and more sensible alternative, since it involves no duplication of the federal government's overseas presence.

The real advantage to Manitoba, however, is its ability to apply its own selection criteria to potential immigrants. While the federal immigration system has been criticized for putting emphasis on post-secondary education when judging candidates as economic immigrants, Manitoba has designed its nominee program to focus on skill shortages in its own labour market. This means skilled tradesmen are in greater demand than PhDs.

Friesens Corp., a commercial printer based in Altona, Man., around 100 kilometres south of Winnipeg, has a standing offer of employment for trained press operators and is finding it increasingly necessary to bring new staff in from overseas, from such places as Germany and Uruguay. Tina Barkman, manager of human resources at Friesens, has waited up to three years for potential employees to wend their way through the maze of the federal immigration bureaucracy. “Using the provincial nominee program, we have been able to get people here in a year,” she says. “Three years is really pushing it.”

The situation is even more acute in the trucking industry. “The marketplace is incapable of supplying us with drivers,” grumbles Norman Schultz, director of recruitment and retention at TransX, a major trucking firm based in Winnipeg. “We are looking in Romania, China, England, Italy and elsewhere for drivers. We want to grow as a company, but our customer demand exceeds the number of drivers we have.” Schultz has found the most effective method of importing labour is to bring foreign workers in on temporary work permits and then use the provincial nominee program to convert them to permanent residents.

The burgeoning provincial presence in immigration is also providing a new form of political pressure on the federal department. For instance, Allan has made it clear to Ottawa that she considers the current requirements for converting temporary visas into permanent ones inefficient and counterproductive. “It is a curiosity, and we have raised that with the federal government,” she says determinedly.

Manitoba's demands for fairer treatment of international students has also led to a provincial pilot project that allows them to work off-campus. Students are frequently seen as an attractive source of migrants since they are Canadian-trained, typically fluent in English or French and likely to settle close to where they studied. But, outside of Manitoba and New Brunswick, they are limited to on-campus jobs while in school and, after graduation, they suffer the same fate as other temporary workers–they must leave the country in order to apply for permanent status, even if they already have a job. To date, Allan has been able to use the provincial nominee program to allow 205 students to become permanent residents without the bother of leaving the country.

As provinces such as Nova Scotia replicate Manitoba's success in creating an individualized immigration policy based on provincial needs instead of federal dictates, the immigration system should become more efficient and relevant. It should also improve the integration of immigrants into Canadian society–a key component of making the immigration system work. “Many federal integration programs are not working particularly well,” says Naomi Alboim, a fellow at the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. She observes that since the provinces control most of the social programs that are responsible for settling and integrating immigrants into Canadian society, such as education, health care, welfare, and share labour-market training with the feds, it only makes sense that they take a bigger role in implementing immigration policy.

One of the longest-running and most frustrating obstacles in the settlement process has been the issue of professional recognition, epitomized by frequent stories of foreign-trained doctors forced to deliver pizza–or worse–because their education and experience has not been recognized in Canada. But despite frequent federal government discussion of the matter, Ottawa lacks any real authority to make progress–professional regulatory bodies are a provincial matter.

Recently, however, Alboim has observed real breakthroughs on the contentious issue. “Some good things are happening,” she says, pointing to Ontario's new licensing procedures for foreign-trained pharmacists and optometrist as an example. This has been driven by local labour shortages and provincial leadership on the issue.

Having the provinces take on more responsibility over immigration is not a new idea. During the settlement of the Prairies in the early 20th century, it was the provinces that staffed overseas recruitment offices and lured European settlers west. And the Constitution explicitly gives the provinces shared responsibility over immigration. Eventually, they withdrew from these activities partly because Ottawa claimed it could do the job more efficiently. It's now clear that is not the case. The provinces should take back their old role in immigration. The Canadian economy is depending on it.