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Opinion: Don Curry, Immigrants over-represented in 'essential' jobs during COVID

The challenge is to ensure those jobs are at a level appropriate to their education and experience
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A recent study by the Conference Board of Canada quantifies what many of us knew to be true—immigrants and foreign workers are over-represented in jobs deemed to be “essential” during the COVID pandemic.

It also shows that the federal government’s emphasis on attracting “skilled” and highly-educated immigrants, has a few holes.

Immigrants account for only 23.8 per cent of the Canadian workforce, the study notes, but are over-represented in major essential jobs.

The workforce in transit and passenger transportation is 39.7 per cent immigrants; food manufacturing 34.85 per cent; administrative and support services 29.84 per cent; truck transportation 29.71 per cent; nursing and residential care facilities 29.21 per cent; personal and laundry services 28.1 per cent; and food services and restaurants 27.43 per cent.

The study notes temporary foreign workers are increasing sources of labour in the farm and food manufacturing sectors.

Work permit holders comprise 1.4 per cent of the total labour force and are over-represented in food services at 3.4 per cent; accommodation services at 2.7 per cent; professional and technical services at 2 per cent and food manufacturing at 2 per cent.

Yilmaz Dinc, senior research associate at the Conference Board of Canada and author of the study, says “Immigrants and temporary residents are critical in the essential sectors and occupations. That’s very clear.”

While our immigration system’s economic streams, think Federal Skilled Workers Program, Canadian Experience Program, Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot Program, are geared to the college or university-educated with degrees or diplomas, we also need those with less education but with specific skills.

“We need truck drivers, nurses’ aides, and workers in food manufacturing. It’s important to create an immigration pathway for people with those skills to arrive in Canada as permanent residents, “ Dinc says.

The report quantifies something else that those working in immigration fields observe anecdotally-- over-qualification is rampant among immigrants.

I constantly see immigrants trained as nurses in their home countries taking jobs in North Bay as Personal Support Workers. It’s an accreditation issue mainly, but it causes highly-educated and experienced people to work in a lower-skilled and lower-paying job until they can get their Ontario nursing accreditation.

This is true of doctors and other medical professionals, engineers, architects, accountants—pretty well every field with a regulatory body.

Our immigration system gives high points for highly-educated people but when they go looking for a job they often land in one that does not utilize their education and foreign work experience, and much of the blame lies at the feet of overly bureaucratic regulatory bodies.

The report identified over-qualification among immigrants working as nurses’ aides at 45 per cent; transport truck drivers at 28 per cent; and process control and machine operators in food and beverage processing at 34 per cent.

More than 25 per cent of immigrant truck drivers and 16.8 per cent of work permit holders have bachelor degrees, which shows the skills they are educated for are not being used.

“You have to create pathways to permanent residency for these essential workers to fill essential job vacancies,” Dinc says. “On the other hand, there needs to be a fresh approach to compensation, career advancement and job mobility to make those jobs attractive not just to immigrants but also Canadians.”

This past summer the federal government launched what may be a one-time only program, the Temporary Resident to Permanent Resident pathway. Due to COVID travel restrictions it redirected its efforts to 90,000 temporary residents and post-secondary graduates who were already here in Canada.

Many newcomers take the study permit route to come to Canada, even though they were well educated in their home countries. They know graduation leads to a Post-Graduation Work Permit, which leads to a job, which leads to permanent residence.

The challenge is to ensure those jobs are at a level appropriate to their education and experience, and at the same time find pathways to permanent residence for “essential” workers in many fields.

Don Curry is a Regulated Canadian Immigration Consultant living in North Bay. He is a member of Bay Today’s community advisory committee.