Canada is betting big on immigrants – we need to do more than set big targets to maximize the potential of immigrants

The numbers from Canada’s latest census data, released in late October, grabbed national headlines. In the last five years, 1.3 million newcomers arrived in Canada, the highest number ever recorded by a Canadian census. Canada is now home to the largest proportion of immigrants in the country’s history: twenty-three per cent.

With the federal government’s recently-announced plans to bring in 500,000 immigrants per year by 2025, including 301,000 in the economic class, newcomers will be the primary driver of our population growth and are projected to represent one-third of all Canadians by 2041.

These numbers reflect the widely held view that immigrants are key to the success and sustainability of Canada’s economy. Unfortunately, too few of them are contributing at the level they want or our economy needs. This is a longstanding and serious problem in a country with approximately one million job vacancies and 40 per cent of businesses report staffing shortages.

The Business Council of Canada says the country is in desperate need of skilled IT workers. We are bombarded by media reports of a health care system in crisis due to a lack of sufficient staffing, and yet, according to a recent report from the OECD, more than 60 per cent of internationally educated doctors and nurses in Canada are not practicing in the professions they trained for.

According to a recent Scotiabank report, although two-thirds of newly arrived immigrants hold university degrees, only about 40 per cent work in jobs requiring them compared to 60 per cent of those born in Canada.

We recruit the best and brightest talent to this country, ready to fill these voids within our labour force — but more needs to be done to ensure this talent doesn’t languish.

Skilled immigrants and refugees deserve the opportunity to realize their professional potential, and Canada needs them to be contributing their skills to our economy. Empowering newcomers to apply their expertise to our labour force or to upgrade it to Canadian standards should be an all-hands-on-deck endeavour, more critical than ever, as the number of immigrants grows.

In a recent survey of Canadian businesses, most agreed corporations have an important role in helping newcomers succeed. This includes recognizing foreign credentials, offering training and support to immigrant employees and working with charity and community organizations that empower new Canadians.

Scotiabank says skilled newcomers working in roles that under-utilize their skills and knowledge can cost those workers as much as $25,000 annually in lost income. Nationally, addressing this underutilization issue could add approximately $16 billion to the Canadian economy.

However, the reason for addressing this issue goes beyond economics.

A recent survey of younger immigrants indicates approximately 30 per cent would consider leaving this country because of what Institute of Canadian Citizenship CEO Daniel Bernhard calls a “crisis of confidence in Canada.” Many university-educated immigrants who participated in the survey perceived the country’s job market as unfair and weren’t satisfied with Canadian salaries.

As the proportion of immigrants and refugees in this country expands, ensuring government, regulators, businesses, educational institutions and the settlement sector continue to collaborate on new policies that enable internationally-educated professionals to leverage their skills will be critically important.

Doing so isn’t just important for filling current labour shortages, but also to send a signal to the best and brightest around the world who are weighing their options about where to immigrate. Canada needs to support the economic mobility and professional integration of immigrants if we want to continue to rely on them as a key driver of our growth and prosperity.

Claudia Hepburn is CEO of Windmill Microlending, a national charity that empowers skilled immigrants to achieve economic prosperity through affordable loans and supports.