Comment: Canada is wasting the skills of its immigrants, and the economy is suffering as a result

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There is no point in attracting highly educated people to Canada unless we remove barriers to economic integration and allow them to put their skills to work.John Lehman/John Lehman/Globe and Mail

Claudia Hepburn is chief executive of Windmill Microlending, a national charity that helps migrants restart their lives, triple their incomes and alleviate skilled labor shortages.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development predicts that Canada’s economic growth will be last among 40 advanced economies over the next half decade. This staggering statistic is based on GDP per capita growth, which is the country’s productive capacity divided by the total population. How can we fix it?

Immigration is often said to be a panacea for economic growth, yet that notion is increasingly being challenged.

Analysts who support higher levels of immigration cite Canada’s low birth rate, aging population and elderly ratio of working-age Canadians (7.7 to 1 in 1966, 3.4 to 1 in 2022). Others who want to lower immigration targets argue that our housing, health care and infrastructure are inadequate to handle the massive influx of newcomers. Still others argue that the solution is to focus on immigrants with higher skills and earning potential.

Immigration is an important part of the solution – but only part of it. While addressing Canada’s low birth rates is essential, high immigration levels alone will not address our punishingly low economic growth rates.

Canada’s problem is not a lack of skilled immigrants, but the obstacles that stand in the way of their economic integration.

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A recent Scotiabank Economics report found that two-thirds of immigrants arrive with university degrees, while only one-third of Canadians have them. Yet two-thirds of native-born, university-educated Canadians are in jobs that require a degree, while only one-third of immigrants with degrees are in jobs that require one. In health care, the numbers are almost as bad: more than 60 percent of internationally trained doctors and nurses do not work in their profession.

Canada’s labor needs are not what they were a decade ago, a generation or a century ago. Many of our labor shortages are for highly skilled workers: nurses, doctors, pharmacists, engineers and cybersecurity experts. If these skills gaps are not addressed, low-income and affluent Canadians alike will suffer.

There is no point in allowing highly educated people if they are not allowed to put their skills to work.

There are many reasons why these skills are wasted. Most of them come from a past when labor supply outstripped demand and racist policies protecting Canadian academic institutions and graduates were popular. It is now clear that those policies are harming our economic growth and our reputation as a just, inclusive and welcoming society.

The costs of re-accreditation programs for internationally trained professionals are high, both in time and money – often measuring years and tens of thousands of dollars. Residencies for internationally trained physicians are few and far between, and many of the Canadian experience requirements are difficult for newcomers to meet.

My company sees these challenges through the eyes of our customers every day. Many engineers, pharmacists and doctors work in fast food service or drive for Uber because they cannot afford the cost of accreditation. Without a Canadian credit history, they have been underemployed for years.

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Governments are taking steps to address these challenges, but progress is slow.

Bringing skilled immigrants to Canada is critical to our future prosperity. But smoothing their path to professional integration and prosperity is even more important if we want to climb out of last place in the OECD rankings for GDP per capita and preserve our standard of living for the next generation.

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