Canada has the most comprehensive and elaborate migration system, but some challenges remain

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This article is brought to you in association with OECD.


Canada has the largest and most comprehensive and elaborate skilled labour migration system in the OECD, according to a new OECD report.

Recruiting Immigrant Workers: Canada 2019 finds that Canada admits the largest number of skilled labour migrants in the OECD. Additionally, Canada also has the most carefully designed and longest-standing skilled migration system in the OECD. It is widely perceived as a benchmark for other countries, and its success is evidenced by good integration outcomes. Canada also boasts the largest share of highly educated immigrants in the OECD as well as high levels of public acceptance of migration. In addition, it is seen as an appealing country of destination for potential migrants.

According to the OECD, Express Entry – the two-step Expression of Interest system for federal permanent labour migration introduced in 2015 – has greatly improved efficiency and the effectiveness of permanent labour migration management. It allows for ranking migrants for selection from a pool of eligible candidates. A unique feature of the Canadian model, in contrast to other selection procedures, is the degree of refinement in the ranking of candidates eligible for immigration. It considers positive interactions of skills, such as between language proficiency and the ability to transfer prior foreign work experience to the Canadian context.

The OECD report stresses that core to Canada’s success is not only its elaborate selection system, but also the comprehensive infrastructure upon which it is built, which ensures constant testing, monitoring and adaptation of its parameters. This includes a comprehensive data infrastructure, the capacity to analyse such data, and subsequent swift policy reaction to new evidence and emerging challenges. Recent reforms addressed several initial shortcomings in the Express Entry system, such as too many points being attributed for a job offer (which led to a high intake of migrants working in the hospitality sector, for instance), and which were subsequently reduced. The current selection system focuses on human capital factors such as age, language proficiency and education and is largely supply driven – meaning that most labour immigrants are admitted without a job offer – in contrast to the majority of other OECD countries.

To further strengthen the system, Canada should address some remaining inconsistencies. For instance, entry criteria to the pool are not well aligned with final selection criteria and language requirements for several groups of onshore candidates are lower than for those coming from abroad. In addition, a specific programme designed to attract tradespeople allows migration for only a few occupations and not necessarily where there are shortages, which contrasts with its original objectives. Providing for a single entry grid based on the core criteria for ultimate selection would simplify the system and ensure common standards.

The management of permanent labour migration is shared between Canada’s federal and provincial/territorial (PT) governments. The increasingly significant role played by regional governments in selection and integration has resulted in a more balanced geographic distribution of migrants across the country. PT-selected migrants have a lower skills profile than federally selected migrants but boast better initial labour market outcomes and high retention. The OECD also recommends considering a provincial temporary foreign worker pilot programme, to allow PTs to better respond to regional cyclical or seasonal labour needs that are not otherwise met, without the need to resort to permanent migration through provincial nomination.

Most of the provincial nominees – like their federally selected counterparts – settle in metropolitan and agglomeration areas, a development that Canada is currently addressing with an innovative rural community-driven programme. This includes a whole-of-family approach to integration, designed to enhance retention. Indeed, the report notes that Canada has been at the forefront of testing new, holistic approaches to managing labour migration and linking it with settlement services, especially in areas with demographic challenges.

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