Making it easier for international students to find work will assist New Brunswick in filling gaps in its labour market
By Darcy Rhyno
On Aug. 2, 2022, the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) made a long-awaited announcement to extend post-graduation work permits for international students. In April, the government promised it would be taking such measures, but provided no further details, until now.
On the day of the announcement, IRCC Minister Sean Fraser tweeted, “Today, we’re launching extensions of expired or expiring post-graduation work permits from September 20, 2021, to December 31, 2022. This includes auto-renewals for some and interim work authorizations for all, so that individuals can get back to work sooner.”
“The announcement is welcome news,” says Mohamed Bagha, managing director with the Saint John Newcomers Centre. “We applaud the federal government for making this announcement and Mr. Fraser for his foresight. It will really help bring clarity for those in limbo who don’t know what the next steps are.”
The next step for those with work permits that expire between Oct. 2 and Dec. 31 is a simple one—automatic renewal, as long as the passport on file is good through April 2024.
Others who qualify can either extend existing work permits or apply for new ones for an extension of up to 18 months. Such individuals should have received an email from IRCC by Aug. 8. If an individual’s immigration status has expired and the 90-day grace period to restore their status has also expired, it’s still possible to take advantage of this IRCC extension.
Given the number of conditions that apply to this special measure, those affected are encouraged to visit the IRCC website and review the details.
The news is also welcome relief in the business community.
“We’ve had tremendous issues getting the talent we need in our labour force,” says Brandon Ellis, senior manager of policy with the Atlantic Chamber of Commerce. “So, having these international students here, contributing to the labour force will certainly help.”
Bagha agrees. “International students play a very important role in today’s economy,” he says. “They also provide opportunities for employers to have a more diverse workforce.”
David Duplisea, CEO of the Saint John Region Chamber of Commerce, also values international students.
“We have to be able to build productivity in our province. One way to do that is through talent and human resources, and this is a really good pathway to get that talent into businesses. Obviously, post-graduates are well educated with university degrees. They have skills that can fill our labour market needs.”
Ellis says the needs are more acute for entry level workers and those skilled in trades, but as a former student union president at Cape Breton University, he’s familiar with the challenges faced by post-grad students.
“There are backlogs across the board. We’ve heard that businesses are having trouble getting the talent they need, in getting work permits processed in an orderly and timely manner.”
While this announcement isn’t going to fill workforce gaps across the board and throughout Eastern Canada, Duplisea sees it as encouraging.
“There are many students in the province that really do want to work here,” he says. “They want to work here while they go to school, and they want to stay afterwards, but there are barriers.” He believes this announcement will reduce the number of barriers for international students. “It’s all moving in the right direction.”
However, Duplisea says more needs to be done to avoid placing international student permits in jeopardy in the first place.
“We can’t just let them expire,” he says. “What are we going to do with that stream of people that keeps falling off the list because their permits expire?”
Such delays create challenges, according to Bagha. “When you don’t have clarity what your next steps are, there are unintended consequences. It impacts your mental health, for example. There are financial impacts.”
To help avoid gaps like those faced by international students with work permits, the federal government is hiring hundreds of new workers to deal with an immigration backlog that has more than doubled since 2021.
“As immigration grows, the IRCC workforce needs to grow with it,” Bagha says.
Duplisea agrees, adding the federal government needs to do a better job of anticipating such backlogs. “They can’t have the delays that are happening, so we were encouraged to read [about the new hires].”
Ellis is also pleased with the new hires.
“The delay has been very detrimental in all aspects of immigration at this time,” he says. “The Atlantic Chamber has called upon government to increase its resources to deal with these backlogs, and I’m glad to see the minister has committed to doing that by hiring more workers. They’re going to be critical to shepherd these immigration applications through.”
Clearing the backlog is part of the solution, but Duplisea says the federal government has to go further. “There needs to be some kind of express system.” While there’s no need for a new department or even a new stream, Duplisea says, “I would like to see a pathway, perhaps through settlement services, which I think would be an ideal place.”
When asked how his centre can help, Bagha rhymes off a dozen ways. “Even before international students get on a plane, we can reach out to them and give them the information they require to make it easier in their first weeks to settle here.” His office helps students navigate the labour market, connects them with the community, guides them to financial and health services, provides weekly information sessions, and creates social events.
“We need the feds and the province to help with investment in settlement services,” Bagha says. “Newcomer settlement services can play a really important role in helping newcomers feel comfortable here and want to stay.”
Helping international post-grad students find their niche is a vitally important part of the immigration picture, Ellis says.
“It’s very commendable that Canada is trying to increase its overall immigration numbers. I think the goal is 1.3 million over a three-year period, which is going to be very beneficial to our labour force, to our economy, and to our diversity as a country.”