What it’s like for international students graduating during COVID-19

Ottawa has updated its policy for international graduates — but advocates say it hasn’t gone far enough to address longstanding issues and new pandemic realities
By Ashley Okwuosa - Published on Feb 24, 2021
John Mikko Flordelis, a graduate of Fanshawe College in London, arrived in Canada in December 2019. (Courtesy of John Mikko Flordelis)

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While job loss and underemployment have been a provincewide challenge during the pandemic, international graduates looking for skilled work face a specific set of stresses: their ability to remain in the country hangs in the balance.

John Mikko Flordelis, a graduate of Fanshawe College in London, arrived in Canada in December 2019 to pursue a pre-health-certificate program. With five years of experience as a respiratory therapist in the Philippines, Flordelis was not a novice, but he would need Canadian education to help him transition easily into the county’s workforce — the certificate was just the first step. “When you go to another country, they don’t really credit your education,” he says. “I was unable to apply for respiratory-therapist jobs. That’s very sad for me, but I understand the process.”

When Flordelis graduated in November 2020, he hoped to continue on to Fanshawe’s paramedic program. But a few months later, the pandemic hit and stalled his plans. His family’s resort and hotel business in the Philippines had been affected by global travel restrictions, which meant it would be difficult for him to fund his studies. So he decided to look for skilled work in an industry such as construction to gain the experience needed to remain in Canada. “It’s really difficult for international students here, since COVID happened,” says Flordelis. “I need a skilled job, and it’s very difficult to find one right now.”

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For international students who come to Canada and intend to remain in the country, skilled-work experience is prioritized above all else. Many graduates migrate through the Canadian Experience Class program, which requires at least one year of Canadian work experience in either technical or managerial roles in professional industries, which the government classifies as NOC 0, A or B.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada responded in January to the challenges graduates are facing finding skilled work by implementing a policy that will allow more than 50,000 graduates to renew their work permits for 18 months, giving them extra time to look for jobs and meet the requirements needed for them to become permanent residents. Despite the policy’s intent, many — including graduates, activists, lawyers, and researchers — say that it does little to address the devastating effects of the pandemic on the availability of skilled work, the longstanding underemployment of international graduates, and the increasing competitiveness of Canada’s skilled-immigration program.

“This [policy] was a massive victory won by migrant students, but there are still gaps,” says Sarom Rho, an organizer with the Toronto-based Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. In concert with migrant students and workers across the province and country, the organization worked actively last year for changes to immigration policy. In addition to asking the government to make post-graduate work permits renewable, it requested that work considered lower-skilled count toward the experience international graduates need to become permanent residents.

“Most graduates simply don't have access to jobs, particularly these high-wage jobs, that are required for permanent residency,” says Rho.

As a result of the pandemic, Rho says, a number of international graduates have taken up work in warehouses and grocery stores to earn money — but working in jobs considered low-skilled and high-risk doesn’t bring them closer to their dream of settling permanently in Canada. “None of this work counts toward permanent residency, because it's not valued,” says Rho. “But this is the work that, as we have seen through COVID-19, sustains our communities and keeps the economy moving.”

A spokeperson from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada tells TVO.org via email that the government recognizes that the pandemic has been difficult and that “many PGWP holders successfully apply for permanent residence by the time their PGWP expires.” They point to data from previous years that shows that “more than 58,000 former international students immigrated permanently in 2019 [and] of nearly 61,000 PGWP holders whose work permit had an expiry date between January and December 2020, about half either have already become permanent residents or have a permanent residence application in processing.”

Immigration has continued to be a priority for Canada, especially after the adverse economic effects of COVID-19. When announcing the country’s plan to welcome more than 1 million immigrants to Canada over the next three years, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino noted that it would help to address some of Canada’s most acute labour shortages and increase the country’s population to keep Canada competitive on the world stage.

Public consultations on the plan conducted over the summer revealed that 33 per cent of respondents identified filling labour-market gaps and bringing new skills as the most important aspects of an immigration program; 29 per cent identified supporting economic recovery as the second-most important. Contributing to Canada’s diversity registered only at 3 per cent. When asked what groups should be prioritized if immigration levels in the country were to increase, more than half pointed to the economic class of migrants.

Given the country’s focus on immigration propelling economic growth, Marshia Akbar, a senior research associate at Ryerson University’s Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration, says that international students are often seen as the most desirable migrants because “it is assumed that they will have Canadian education, they'll have Canadian work experience, and they will be proficient in English and French.”

a group of people holding signs
Migrant Workers Alliance for Change held a rally in Toronto on October 25. (Couresty of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change)

Data released last November shows that, between 2008/2009 and 2018/2019, the proportion of international-student enrolments more than tripled, representing 57.2 per cent of the total growth in all post-secondary program enrolments in Canada. In 2019, Ontario accounted for 48 per cent of Canada’s international student population. Tunde Omotoye, a human-resources professional and co-founder of Human Squad, a Toronto-based immigration and tech company, says that many international students estimate that it will take them about six years to go from student to Canadian citizen, an opportunity not many other countries offer. “I think it's that the simplicity in the immigration process is quite welcoming,” says Omotoye.

But while interest from international students has increased, economic opportunities have not followed suit. Data shows that the unemployment rate has been consistently higher for immigrants than for those born in Canada. The most recent numbers put the unemployment rate for immigrants who landed in Ontario between five and 10 years ago at 13.2 per cent; for those born in Canada, that number is  9.1 per cent.

Experts say that the economic impact of the pandemic will be both far-reaching and long-lasting for many, especially new international graduates. “We can look at people that, just through bad luck, entered the market during a recession,” says Mikal Skuterud, professor of economics at the University  of Waterloo. “You look at them 10, 15, 20 years into the future — earnings are lower, and they are having more challenges than somebody who, just through good luck, entered the market during an economic boom. And those long-term effects are even more so for immigrants.”

Skuterud says that this should not come as a surprise to those who have been paying attention. “To some extent, there’s nothing new here,” he says, noting that it's always been a challenge for international graduates to find employment. “It’s going to be even more of a challenge, and those transitions are going to be difficult.”

Omotoye, who transitioned from a co-op placement to a full-time human-resources position in 2016, says that he submitted almost 80 applications over the course of his job search. One major disadvantage for international graduates who are job-hunting now, he notes, is that the pandemic has taken away opportunities for in-person connection through such things as church or other extra-curricular activities at which graduates could network and meet other professionals. “There are a lot of people who have not been able to meet with the right community,” says Omotoye.

Numbers show that only 19 per cent of immigrants who obtained a study permit between 1990 and 2014 had become permanent residents by 2014. Research has shown discrimination across a variety of occupations toward job applicants with foreign experience or those with Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, and Greek names, as compared with English names. Akbar says that can act as a barrier, but she also points to Canada’s increasingly competitive skilled-express-entry program, which includes applicants in the Federal Skilled Worker or Federal Skilled Trades programs, who are also migrants with skilled experience applying for permanent residence. Data from 2019 showed that 8,000 more invitations to apply for permanent residency were issued to federal skilled workers than to those applying through the Canadian Experience Class.

“It's hard for international students to compete with different foreign workers,” says Akbar, as skilled-work experience from outside Canada is considered under the FSW and FST programs.

Many experts are urging policy-makers not to ignore international graduates of Canadian institutions who might not meet their definition of skilled — especially as retail, customer service, and warehousing have been identified as some of the fastest-growing occupations during the pandemic.

“If you have a job in Canada, then obviously, you're in need in Canada,” says Elizabeth Long, partner at Long Mangalji, a Toronto-based law firm specializing in immigration.

Many also say that loosening requirements might be a way for Canada to meet its ambitious immigration levels, and recent events indicate that the government might be listening.

On February 13, the Canadian government invited over 27,000 Canadian Experience Class applicants to apply for permanent residency — five times more than have ever been invited in a single batch since the program began in 2015. The program's cutoff score for eligible applicants was also significantly lower than it had been in past draws, at 75 CRS points. (The cutoff for CEC applicants a little more than a month before had been 454.) Akbar’s says this is a sign that the government is paying attention: “The record number of ITAs under the CEC stream indicates that the Canadian government has realized the importance of providing permanent status to migrants who are already in Canada and possess Canadian education and work experience, particularly during this pandemic.”

Akbar says the challenges for international students precede the pandemic and are likely to outlast it if care isn’t taken: “They have been struggling for a long time. It’s surprising and to some extent contradictory to the Canadian policy that international students are suffering so much in terms of getting permanent residency and a skilled job.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that the unemployment rate has been consistently lower for immigrants than for those born in Canada; in fact, it has been higher. TVO.org regrets the error.

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