For decades, New Brunswick has been staring down a demographic shift that has seen significant outmigration to other provinces. This trend, combined with a low birth rate has made us one of the oldest and slower growing provinces. The past couple of years have seen an uptick in the right direction, and the pandemic has played a role in attracting some career-oriented in-migration, but the province must continue to focus on growing our population, lowering our average age, and increasing the number of people in the labour force to fill positions that enable business growth. It’s this growth that funds the programs, services and infrastructure that New Brunswickers deserve.
Immigration has been long been identified as a key component to present and future growth and this was borne out in the latest census data: Canada added approximately 1.7 million people between 2011 and 2016, with two-thirds of this increase attributable to immigration.1 More particularly, New Brunswick and Atlantic Canada as a whole have an opportunity to leverage our many post-secondary institutions in order to attract and retain more international students, who provide a direct economic boost to local economies across Canada, a highly-skilled talent pipeline that can help address labour shortages; and because they often have young families, act as a demographic counterbalance to our aging population.
Of course, international students and other newcomers add so much more value to our communities than simply economic impact. Learning from diverse experiences, cultural practices and different perspectives from around the world makes us better – as individuals, as citizens and as a community.
A significant impediment to our efforts to attract and retain international students are policies that make it more difficult for these students to obtain work experience while attending Canadian post-secondary institutions. Some of the changes the federal government can make to improve the situation include allowing international students to:
- qualify for the Canada Summer Jobs program and the Student Work Placement Program;
- participate in voluntary co-op terms and internships without obtaining a separate work permit; and
- count all time spent in Canada as an international student towards citizenship eligibility (i.e increase from half time to full time).
- allowing international students to work more than 20 hours per week off-campus in certain sectors.
Before international students even arrive, there is one simple but important change the federal government should implement. We recently learned that when applying to post-secondary institutions in Canada, international students must indicate that their intention is to return to their home country once their studies are complete. This single box on the application form is entirely antithetical to what we are trying to achieve and immediately sends a message to applicants that they are not wanted here.
It’s not just the government that has a role to play to welcome and retain international students. We also need the private sector, the post-secondary sector and the general public to make it their business to provide opportunities, show kindness and make the connections that everyone needs to build a career and a life.
Experiential learning is a key piece of this puzzle and both the provincial government and post-secondary institutions deserve a lot of credit for recognizing this priority and allotting resources to create opportunities. These positions are particularly important for international students who are less likely to have organic networks that come from their families, the K-12 education system, extra-circular activities and the like.
We also need the private sector to double down our efforts to work with post-secondary institutions and government to create meaningful opportunities for students to gain experience, make connections and start to make a life in the province. Of course, for both the student and business, the goal is to turn these opportunities into permanent positions. However, even if ultimately student work experiences don’t lead to a long-term position with that specific company, the Canadian work experience and connections provided makes it more likely they will stay in the province after graduation.
Retention efforts should begin from the time the students arrive and increasing work experience opportunities not only better prepares graduates for the workforce, but it also creates those networking opportunities and connections in communities that cannot otherwise be replicated. The ability to work, whether on- or off-campus, is also an opportunity to adapt and put down roots in a new community, and make invaluable contacts and friendships. It is a vital means of enriching the international student experience in Canada, and of enriching the diversity of the communities that surround post-secondary campuses. Can your business be part of the solution?
Krista Ross is CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce, a nationally accredited organization with more than 1,000 members, is an active business organization engaged in policy development and advocacy that affects the competitiveness of our members and the Canadian business environment. The Chamber’s vision is ‘Stronger Community Through Business Prosperity’.