Immigrant workers only way to sustain Canadian labour force: Report

posted on May 19, 2019

By HR Reporter

“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.

Alternative options

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.

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