Opportunity knocks as Canada increases immigration targets
Six years ago, Jamila Nahhat arrived in Canada from the Middle East with her parents not knowing a word of English. Today, the 20-year-old Syrian woman is enrolled in a nursing program at Memorial University in Newfoundland and excited about a healthcare career.
Newcomers know that language requirements are a key aspect of a successful immigration journey in this country. As Canada moves to significantly increase immigration, we should ensure that we are hyperfocused on providing the right language training for those looking to make a new home here.
Canada is the fourth most popular destination for English language learners and second for French language students, according to Languages Canada. That leaves room for improvement as Canada focuses on increasing its tax base and filling unoccupied employment positions.
Inconsistent approach across provinces
One of the barriers to increasing those numbers is our country’s constitutional structure. Federally, Canada is limited in shaping education policy (even though it provides financial support for postsecondary programs, through the Canada student loan program, and other programs). Each of the ten provinces and three territories has authority over its education structure. So, education programs delivered in Saskatchewan, for instance, can appear to be quite different to what is offered in Ontario.
That disjoint presents challenges to educational institutions and provincial governments trying to market our education product to international students in countries such as India, China and South Africa. We are losing competitive advantage to countries with a more centralized approach, including Australia, which has put out a more unified brand of education.
Despite that, Canada remains a hugely popular choice for international students thanks to its reputation for neutrality, a relatively strong economy and the fact that multiculturalism and diversity are fundamental aspects of its national identity.
The federal government plans to welcome at least 500,000 immigrants a year by 2025 (the author suggests that number is likely to be even higher given the recent relaxation of certain legal and regulatory barriers) in an effort to replenish a dwindling tax base and the large number of aging workers expected to soon retire from the workforce.
That disconnect in the Canadian education brand must be resolved if we expect to attract the right students, those who are pre-qualified to meet Canada’s labour market demand.
There is value in recognizing that different vocations require different, and varying degrees of language skills. However, all vocations and professions require some degree of language proficiency.
Many professions, including those in health care and the legal sector, for example, have their own nuance-specific language and acronyms. Offering newcomers vocation-specific language training in addition to English as a Second Language (ESL) classes could help them more quickly transition into the professions for which they were trained.
The goal is to reduce the time these highly skilled professionals spend in the entry-level jobs we often see immigrants occupying or sidestep it altogether wherever possible. We don’t want foreign-trained professionals driving taxis when they are able and willing to contribute as a (direly needed) family physician, nurse, or paramedic in northern Ontario, or even in large metropolitan centres.
Could the evolution of language schools be such that vocation-specific and profession-specific programs are the norm? My vote is a resounding yes. While broader language training should not be replaced sometime soon (given the sheer number of newcomers whose first language is neither English nor French), micro-credential style programs which is nuance-specific would certainly not hurt Canada.
Destigmatize vocational training and the trades
And now, to quickly derogate from nuance-specific language training, let’s raise the flag for trade and vocational training schools. The shortage of skilled labour in the trades has long been acknowledged in Canada.
This is a critical time to move forward with de-stigmatization efforts in vocational training and the trades before that gap is further widened by an overall shortage of workers. That stigma is part of the bottleneck to Canada’s growth and success.
Think about who will tile your roof or bring grapes to your local supermarket? Or fly you to some exotic destination to enjoy a hard-earned vacation– or to a business destination to compete in globalized commerce. Truck drivers, pilots, and skilled tradespeople such as electricians and plumbers, are among the many vocations in demand. As we move to fill those roles with people from other countries, we must recognize that not only are newcomers welcome here but that those who fill these positions play a vital role in the health of our economy.
Peter Drucker, widely known as the “father of modern management,” famously said: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
That’s based on the concept that without some sort of a yardstick, how can effort be deemed to be successful or not?
Meanwhile, in Canada, the Fraser Institute finds that there is a decline in standardized testing in Canadian schools. In a report last year, the think tank found that standardized tests today place less emphasis on subject-specific knowledge, are not given the same value as they once were and are administered less often and at fewer grade levels.
The report also found significant disruption to standardized testing during the pandemic, which is problematic for several reasons, not the least of which is that Canada risks getting kicked in the pedagogical pants and losing ground globally.
If you think employees are not measuring language proficiency, guess again. To the patient on a gurney struggling to make it to the nearest hospital, that paramedic better be able to communicate. It is literally a matter of life and death.
Canada has an opportunity to attract a diverse range of skilled and talented individuals who can contribute to the country’s economy and society. Immigration helps address labour shortages, support population growth and bring in new ideas and perspectives. Immigrants also start businesses, create jobs and drive innovation.
Capitalizing on the opportunity requires a well-functioning system and policies to ensure that immigrants can successfully integrate and contribute to the country.
Look forward to your comments, criticisms, and feedback! Thanks for reading