Why are new immigrants doing so badly? Is discrimination to blame? Or are we picking the wrong people?Everybody in Toronto jokes that we have the best-educated taxi drivers in the world. We’ve got doctors from Pakistan, lawyers from India, teachers from Sudan, and engineers from Bangladesh - qualified immigrants from all over the world who can’t get good jobs, even though Canada is crying out for their skills.
What’s the problem? We think we know. Employers don’t like to hire immigrants and regulated professions are protectionist. How many stories have we read about university graduates who are stuck selling TVs at Future Shop? Employers won’t hire them without Canadian experience, but how can they get it if nobody will hire them?
“We’re bringing in people with university degrees and they are delivering pizzas,” says Olivia Chow, an NDP MP.
Call it the great disconnect. Immigration is critical to our fortunes. It accounts for all of our population growth, and a few years from now virtually all of the growth in every profession will depend on it. Yet new immigrants are doing worse than ever. Even after 20 years in Canada, immigrants are more than twice as likely as Canadian-born workers to have a low income. And even though recent immigrants have higher education levels than Canadians, they earn only about 60 per cent of what Canadian-born workers make.
Here’s the most depressing fact of all: A recent male immigrant with a university degree earns less than half of his Canadian-born counterpart. The new face of the chronically poor are economic migrants - the very people who should be guaranteed to succeed.
“It’s about the haves and have-nots,” one recent immigrant, a lawyer from India, told the Toronto Star. “The haves don’t want to let you in.”
There’s a grain of truth to the conventional explanations of why immigrants are doing so badly. But there’s also a different, far more important reason. In spite of our much-celebrated “points” system, which is supposed to select for success, we do a lousy job of picking people.
“Once you filter people with appropriate selection criteria, you get much better outcomes,” says Lesleyanne Hawthorne, an Australian immigration expert who knows as much about the issues as anyone in the world.
Ms. Hawthorne was in Canada this week, armed with mountains of analysis, to explain how Australia does it better. How much better? Consider this. In Australia, 76 per cent of all employed economic migrants earn more than the median wage. In Canada, it’s only 33 per cent. In Australia, 82 per cent of economic migrants get work within six months. In Canada, only 60 per cent do.
Australia is almost a perfect match for Canada in terms of demographics, culture, job markets, variety of source countries, and intake of visible minorities. So what do they do differently?
First, they allow far fewer family-class migrants than we do. Want to bring in Mom and Dad? Forget it. If you miss them, buy a plane ticket. Next, they’ve built a world-class system for educating international students, and they make it easy for them to stay and work. The success rate of this group is extremely high. Last, they do a much better job of screening economic immigrants.
A decade ago, Australia had the same problems we have now. Too many immigrants weren’t succeeding, even those with skills and education. Success rates differed hugely by birthplace (immigrants from English-speaking countries were on top; people from southern Asia and the Middle East were at the bottom). The government set out to analyze the problems and reform the system. The goal was to advance the national interest. Pragmatism, not altruism, was to be the guide.
What they found was that language proficiency is incredibly important - and poor language skills are devastating. The knowledge economy demands excellent communication skills and that means language matters more than ever. People who are fluent will find work quickly; the rest will wind up driving cabs. A big reason why immigrants to Canada do so much worse than they used to is the huge decline of newcomers from English-speaking countries.
Today, Australia requires all prospective economic migrants to take a tough language test. It has found that 89 per cent of immigrants with language fluency get jobs right away, versus only 59 per cent who have mediocre language skills. By contrast, Canada does not require a test. We allow applicants to self-report their language skills, with predictable results.
Australia also found that not all credentials are equally good. We hesitate to say that here, perhaps for fear of giving insult. But people who’ve been trained and educated in systems that are similar to Canada’s have a big leg up. Prospective immigrants deserve a fair and fast assessment of whether their credentials are good enough for Canada - and, most importantly, good enough for employers. Right now they don’t get it.
“In the early 1990s we brought in many mining engineers, and they were turned away in droves,” Ms. Hawthorne recalls. She soon found out that employers weren’t prejudiced - just merciless. One gave her the example of a mining engineer from India, who was highly qualified, on paper. But his experience consisted of “managing an army of peons with picks and shovels.”
She found plenty of other examples - engineers who’d never used sophisticated computers, doctors and nurses who’d never worked with modern medical equipment. “Many of them told me quite openly that it took three or four years for them to be safe - because the equipment they’d trained on was a generation out of date,” she says. “It wasn’t that they came from a bad system. They came from a poor system.” Australia also closely ties immigrant selection to labour demand - something of a heresy in Canada, where highly employable accountants have to stand in the same slow-moving line as people with general arts degrees.
Canada is investing millions to bring skilled immigrants up to speed, and that’s good. But we also have to do a far better job of selecting for success in the first place. The human carnage that has resulted from the current system is far too high. “Economic migrants are aspirational,” Ms. Hawthorne says. “To be selected for your skills - and then be deemed not good enough to use them - is brutal. They are devastated and humiliated by their loss of status.”
Australia’s immigration reforms, introduced in 1999, began to pay off right away. What’s striking is that the racial and ethnic mix of immigrants hasn’t changed. There are so many qualified applicants in all parts of the world that supply is not an issue. What’s more, the “disadvantage gap” between the most and least successful groups has largely disappeared.
The good news for Canada is that some Australia-like reforms are in the works. The bad news is that our system is going to take a long time to fix - partly because it’s so broken, and partly because immigration is such a political hot potato. Meantime, Australia is simply out-competing us for human capital. They process applications in six months. Our backlog is so huge that here it takes as much as six years. If I were a smart young IT guy from Bangalore, guess where I’d go. Wouldn’t you?