Over the past week or so, both the New Brunswick Student Alliance and the University of New Brunswick Student Union held their annual “Advocacy Week” campaigns – publishing their annual priority document and meeting with numerous government officials and other stakeholder groups – including the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce. They should both be commended for their thoughtful presentations and professionalism, and I hope government officials hear them out.
Our organization is very familiar with both organizations as we have active memoranda of understandings with them (in place since 2016) – which gives their members access to our events and creates space on our policy and advocacy committees for their leadership teams. We have received a lot of value from these agreements – both in terms of making connections with our members and with helping on policy work – understanding international student issues better to improve our advocacy is one such example.
Of course, at a foundational level, employers and students have a natural symbiotic relationship that is easy to understand – students (and graduates) need jobs and employers need workers. That was our original impetus for forming partnerships and hosting events on campus. Students and the post-secondary education sector are a critical part of our current and future economy. The sector is a key economic driver in many communities and our students are our future business owners, employees and community leaders. Creating more and deeper connections between post-secondary students, employers and the community while they are in school is key to retaining more students after graduation.
The more we work with and learn from these student organizations, the more it becomes clear our mutual goals and issues are very much aligned. Two of the chamber’s key policy priorities are immigration/population growth and workforce development – and as a result, a lot of our advocacy and policy efforts are student-focused. Having the student perspective on matters that affect them is essential and we appreciate the valuable insight that post-secondary student leaders contribute to our organization.
That doesn’t mean we agree on every issue or point of policy – the rent cap and EI Connect program are two examples that we discussed extensively this month where we agreed to disagree – but there is a lot more in common than not. Otherwise, our meetings sound like any other business meeting these days – lots of talk about housing, health care, skills development, and credential recognition.
Perhaps even more importantly, there’s a sense of mutual understanding of overall goals. Students – wherever they came from – are invested in our province and our communities. They want to see us prosper and thrive. They understand that private sector growth is key to thriving communities and providing governments of all levels with the revenue they need to deliver programs and services. At the same time, we have gotten a better understanding of their wants and needs – yes, a career – but with meaningful work and a better work-life balance than maybe some of us grew up with (for me, one of the big lessons of the pandemic).
Underscoring this point is the number of international students engaged in policy work and student advocacy – demonstrating the need to do more to welcome and retain these students. This is a key area where student groups and business are completely aligned. A significant impediment to these efforts are policies that make it more difficult for these students to obtain work experience while attending Canadian post-secondary institutions, such as needing a separate work permit for internships outside of their programs, and not being eligible for Canada Summer Jobs positions. These restrictions can impact permanent residency and citizenship requirements because they may consequently have a more difficult time meeting minimum work thresholds as well as practical implications such as having a harder time connecting with the student’s host community, making post-graduation career contacts, and gaining work experience.
International students provide a direct economic boost to local economies across Canada, a highly-skilled talent pipeline that can help address labour shortages, and a demographic counterbalance to aging populations in many parts of the country. A recent example of government listening to our advocacy was the lifting of restrictions on international students working more than 20 hours per week during the school year until the end of 2023. I look forward to working together to make this change permanent and on many other issues of mutual concern.
The implications for business and the economy are clear. The country needs the next generation of consumers to sustain growth and the next generation of taxpayers to support our aging population. Businesses need skilled workers to innovate and grow. Estimates put the national cost of skills shortages and mismatches at $70 billion annually – students are the long-term key to filling this gap – let’s make sure we’re listening to them.
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’.