The Real Economy

Canada welcomes immigrants, but their skills are underused

Sep 14, 2023

Key takeaways

Canada's ambitious immigration policy has fueled economic growth and population growth.

Canada faces skill underutilization challenges, with many immigrants in jobs that don't match their qualifications.


Skill underutilization poses a long-term threat to Canada's economic and productivity growth, necessitating reforms and investment.

The Real Economy

While many developed economies grapple with the challenges of their aging populations, Canada has turned to a bold strategy: using immigration to foster growth.

Immigration is well-known as being central to Canada's economic development. Last year, Canada welcomed 405,000 permanent residents, the most ever in history. This number should reach 500,000 in 2025, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. That is nearly two million immigrants in four years, a stunning number for a country with a population of 40 million.

So far, the bets are paying off. The economy has skirted a recession as immigrants add to the labour supply and boost consumer demand. Gross domestic product is expected to grow by 1.7 per cent in 2023 and 1.4 per cent in 2024, according to the International Monetary Fund.

But while Canada is great at attracting immigrants, it struggles in using their skills, leaving much unrealized potential on the table.

So-called skill underutilization occurs when employers are not getting the most benefits from workers and talent is not efficiently leveraged.

Many immigrants are employed in jobs that require few skills or are underemployed. Over a quarter of immigrants with foreign advanced degrees are working in jobs that do not require them, compared to just 10 per cent of Canadian-born workers, according to data from Statistics Canada.

Underutilization undermines households' earnings and consumer spending, amplifies talent shortages and stunts productivity growth, costing the economy billions of dollars annually.

To achieve sustained economic growth and productivity, Canada needs to address the underutilization challenge.

Immigration: Lifeline of labour supply

An ambitious immigration policy has turned Canada from a country with an aging workforce to a country with one of the highest population growth rates among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Immigration also contributes to Canada's having the most educated workforce among the G7 countries.

Around 60 per cent of immigrants come to Canada under economic programs such as Express Entry (EE) or Canadian Experience Class (CEC), according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. New entrants to the country are evaluated on education, work experience, age and language proficiency. As a result, the immigration population is predominantly young and educated with professional work experience.

These demographic characteristics are, in theory, great for the economy. Education and experience lead to higher income, which translates to higher purchasing power.

In addition, educated and experienced workers also tend to be more productive and innovative when employed appropriately. For instance, a senior software engineer with five years of experience would be more productive and capable of innovating than an entry-level engineer. Immigrants, in particular, have been found to contribute to innovation disproportionately compared to native-born workers when given the opportunity.

The problem with underutilization

However, many highly educated and skilled immigrants are not contributing to the economy at the level they could. Many immigrants find they must start over in low-paid, entry-level positions despite having international work experience.

When workers are underutilized, they earn lower wages, which limits their spending power and the economy misses out on productivity.

Underutilization also means that a talent shortage prevails in certain industries, even as immigrants with relevant work backgrounds occupy positions in those sectors, just not in vacant positions that may align with their expertise. This concern holds true for industries ranging from health care to education and professional services.

What's more, underutilized immigrants might feel resentment, leading to low morale and high turnover, both of which are expensive for employers.

On a macro scale, some overlooked workers will even decide to take their talent elsewhere and leave Canada altogether. According to the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, the proportion of permanent residents choosing to become citizens has fallen 40 per cent in the past 20 years to 45.7 per cent in 2021 from 75.1 per cent in 2001.

Nearly a third of young immigrants plan on leaving Canada in the next few years. Talent retention has become an issue on a national scale.

Canada risks losing a sizeable portion of the talent it works hard to attract, which is counterproductive if the goal is to grow and rejuvenate the workforce.

Addressing underutilization

Several avenues could help address underutilization. Streamlining the accreditation process could deploy immigrants where needed faster without them wasting their talent for years while awaiting accreditation.

Alberta, for instance, accelerated the process to license out-of-province nurses faster, resulting in the College of Registered Nurses of Alberta issuing three times the number of permits to internationally educated nurses in three months than the total issued in the past four years.

Employers are currently least likely to consider newcomers when looking to fill vacancies. This process needs to change, as new immigrants represent an essential human resource at a time when the talent shortage costs the economy billions per year and will continue to be a long-term issue.

More broadly speaking, investment in research and development would create more opportunities for high-skilled workers in general, enabling productivity growth.

The takeaway

While challenges come with high immigration numbers, such as the housing shortage and the strain on social services and public infrastructure, it would be hard to deny the economic benefits immigration brings to Canada.

However, the underutilization of immigrants prevents the country from realizing its potential long-term economic and productivity growth.

If Canada wants to continue attracting and retaining the best and the brightest, it will need to ensure the skills and education of new immigrants are fully used.

RSM contributors

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