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Finlayson & Peacock Op-Ed: Business input vital to immigration system’s economic success (Business in Vancouver)

There are currently 4.7 million people living in B.C. Over the past 20 years, our population has risen by 908,000. Back in 1995, the population was growing at an annual rate of 2.8%, based on strong net interprovincial migration, international migration, and a relatively high rate of natural increase (births minus deaths). Now, the population is increasing by 1% annually, which is higher than the Canadian average but slower than in decades past.

In the next 20 years, our population is projected to expand by 1.14 million. Natural population growth dwindles after 2015 and approaches zero by 2030. At that point, B.C.’s population will be rising solely due to net in-migration from other provinces and countries. Of the two sources of in-migrants, international immigration will have a bigger role in determining B.C.’s demographic and economic future. Thus, it is more important than ever that immigration policy is aligned with our economic needs. Unfortunately, based on some initial actions by the Justin Trudeau government, it appears that economic considerations will carry less weight in immigration decisions.

Since the start of the year, the federal government has announced three changes that bear on immigration and citizenship policy.

First, Ottawa is shifting away from “economic class” immigrants and putting a higher priority on the “family” and “refugee” classes within the aggregate intake of newcomers. Henceforth, 54% of permanent immigrants are to be admitted under “economic” criteria, compared with 65% previously.

Second, Trudeau’s cabinet decided to water down the language and knowledge requirements established by the previous government for people seeking to obtain Canadian citizenship.

Third, the federal government is doubling the number of permitted sponsorship applications for parents and grandparents of first-generation immigrants currently in the country, to 20,000 a year.

Taken together, these changes are likely to produce a mix of immigration and citizenship policies that is less attuned to the realities of labour market demand in B.C. and across the country.

In this environment, it is time for the employer community to step up efforts to influence immigration policy. Below we offer a few suggestions that the business community may be able to rally around.

•Within the economic immigration stream, modify the rules around the “Canadian Experience Class” to award additional points to foreign graduates of Canadian universities and colleges. In selecting immigrants, it makes sense to give preference to applicants with Canadian educational credentials.

•Increase the number of Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) allocations. The PNP enables employers to quickly recruit qualified foreigners to fill in-demand positions. It is a more efficient way to attract talent than the mainline federal immigration program. For Canada as a whole, the 2016 cap for PNP applicants has been set at 47,800. Employers should lobby to lift the cap to 80,000 by 2020.

•Consider introducing a new “global skills visa,” as recently proposed by the BC Technology Industry Association and several other Canadian technology organizations. Rather than using the Temporary Foreign Worker program, the global skills visa would allow Canadian firms to recruit talent in a timely manner, thereby helping our technology sector and other innovation-based industries to grow. Under this model, Canadian companies would apply on behalf of qualified foreign workers with a valid Canadian job offer. The visa would be limited to jobs and applicants with specific technical and business skills, as is the case with the “Tech Nation” visa in the United Kingdom, and extend for a period of two to four years (renewable). A streamlined, online system would be used to process applications, in order to minimize delays.

Undoubtedly there are other ideas that B.C. business leaders and industry associations can advance to further strengthen the Canadian immigration system.

The federal government has just launched a national consultation on immigration. Employers with views to share can participate online here.

As the Canadian Chamber of Commerce observed in a recent report, “immigration matters too much … for business not to be engaged with the system. With employers’ involvement, Canada can better align immigrant talent with labour market needs and future economic prosperity.” 

Jock Finlayson is the Business Council of British Columbia’s executive vice-president and chief policy officer; Ken Peacock is the council’s chief economist

As published in Business in Vancouver