by Peter Halpin
Canada’s labour market may not be showing much demand for bakers or tailors or candlestick makers, according to the CIBC report The Haves and Have Nots of Canada’s Labour Market. But, market demand remains strong for university graduates.
Indeed, university education is preferred if not essential for most of the 25 most in‐demand professions listed in the CIBC report. Skills shortages exist in numerous professions that require university education — from engineering, architecture and auditing, to optometry, counselling and various health professions.
The CIBC report welcomes government proposals to admit 53,000 to 55,000 new Canadians this year to help meet the national skills shortage. At the same time, CIBC warns that this initiative is “simply not big enough to turn things around.”
Retaining skilled professionals
How can Atlantic Canada attract and retain skilled professionals inside what is a highly competitive market for their services?
First, we could start by looking at the thousands of international students already enrolled at Canada’s East Coast universities. New research commissioned by the Association of Atlantic Universities (AAU) shows that our international students are willing and able to help fill the region’s skills gap.
Indeed, the survey of this student cohort reveals that a majority of international students would consider staying in Canada after they graduate. Here are a few highlights from the survey, which was conducted by Corporate Research Associates:
• 33% of respondents ranked a “desire to live in Canada after graduation” as the single most important reason for their decision to attend a Canadian university.
• 76% of respondents were interested in applying for permanent residency through the federal government’s Canadian Experience Class (CEC) immigration stream.
• Academic factors were (in aggregate) the primary reasons international students cited for choosing to study at a Canadian university – with 49% referencing the quality of teaching.
Global talent pool
It is important to note that the global talent pool is growing deeper at our universities. According to the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission, the number of international students attending universities in the Maritimes has more than doubled over the past decade. In Atlantic Canada, the number of full‐time visa students increased 12 per cent to almost 11,000 last year.
In short, the right immigration policy is in place; the demand for skills is evident in the Atlantic Canada labour market; and thousands of international students are already attending our East Coast universities. In addition, like all university students, they offer the job market what it most needs – not only specific skills, but the ability to think critically, reason, adapt and get along with other human beings.
So the puzzle pieces are all at our fingertips. What we now need to do is build a partnership to put them together.
The universities will play their part by making international students more aware of the CEC program. This program can provide a pathway to citizenship, but the CRA research shows that many international students do not know that the program exists. Nor do they know that eligibility criteria include French or English‐language competency and a year of skilled work experience in Canada.
A team effort
Other players – including the private sector, provincial and federal governments – must also step up to make the CEC program work for international students who show a willingness to stay and work here in the region.
Business leaders and business organizations are also key partners in this initiative. They are best situated to identify the skills gaps in the Atlantic Canadian workforce, and to welcome international students inside their organizations to help fill those gaps.
Governments must also play a role, by unleashing the real potential of the CEC program to help place international students in careers that will prove essential to the region’s prosperity.
The bottom line is that many of our international students – from nations as diverse and geographically dispersed as China, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia — would like to thrive and prosper in Atlantic Canada after graduation and to contribute to the region’s development and prosperity.
We should do everything that we can to help make it so. Governments, our universities and the private sector should now partner in transforming the CEC program into an East Coast success story. Our international students represent a talent pool that must be tapped.
(Peter Halpin has served as the executive director of the Association of Atlantic Universities (AAU) since December 1, 2003. In his capacity as executive director, Halpin serves as an advocate for the region’s university sector with governments and other key stakeholders in higher education, regionally and nationally.)