Last fall, I took a taxi home from the airport in Toronto. As the conversation with the young driver moved on from the weather, I asked how he got into driving. He was a Punjabi from India, a member of an immigrant group that tends to dominate jobs at the city’s airport. He had moved to Canada two years earlier, when he was twenty-seven, and now drove his uncle’s Lincoln Town Car several nights a week, while studying engineering at a nearby university.
I asked him how he liked the school, which was reputed to be the best in the country for engineering. “The school is great,” he said, “but it’s kind of pointless for me. I know everything they’re teaching, because I did it all before back home.” In India, he already had a degree from one the country’s top engineering schools, and had spent several years working there for the global engineering firm Siemens, as a mechanical engineer. “You see that train there?” he asked me, pointing at the new express train linking the airport to the city’s downtown passing overhead. “I designed, built, and maintained airport trains exactly like that back in India. Now, I have to finish my degree just to apply for an internship with Siemens here. It’s insane!”
Our conversation happened just two weeks after the election of Donald Trump, who last month backed sweeping changes to America’s own immigration system. At the heart of this is the raise Act, proposed by Republicans senators, which would move the United States from an immigration system that focusses on family reunification to one that prioritizes skills and experiences suited to the job market. Though Trump’s primary motivation may be cutting legal immigration to the United States by as much as half, the core of the raise Act has frequently been compared to the Canadian immigration system.
If you want to immigrate to Canada, and do not have some other form of entry (such as refugee status, as hundreds of Haitian asylum seekers now housed in tent camps along the U.S. border are claiming), you can apply for the Federal Skilled Worker program, which ranks applicants based on a hundred-point scale. Points are awarded based on how an applicant matches up with the current needs of the Canadian job market: education, work experience, age, a spouse’s qualifications, whether a person has a job offer here, proficiency in English or French, and whether that person already has family in Canada. Those with scores of sixty-seven or above qualify, and are sent an invitation to apply to a specific program. Acceptance, however, is by no means guaranteed.
The system is lauded around the world as fair and effective, and successive governments, especially that of Justin Trudeau, love to brag about its basis in making Canada a land where immigrants are encouraged to come and prosper. The country is second only to Australia, which has its own points-based system, for the percentage of its population that is foreign born. Shouldn’t countries choose the best and brightest candidates to live there, the logic goes, just like a company would seek the absolute brightest person to fill a job?
The problem is how the lofty rhetoric that surrounds Canada’s points-based immigration system contrasts with the reality on the ground. As that young taxi driver’s tale highlighted, there is a tremendous disconnect between the way Canada brings people into the country and how their talents are applied after they arrive. More often than not, the taxi driver’s story is the norm rather than the exception. Pakistani and Indian engineers, Polish accountants, and Colombian teachers drive cars, fold laundry, and sling shawarma late into the night. Talented individuals are brought to Canada for their skills and experience, only to find those skills ignored once they land here.
Immigrants to Canada in their first ten years are more likely to be unemployed than the rest of the population, according to government statistics. That applies even when the immigrants are college-educated, compared to those native born with only a high-school diploma. Among those who have jobs, only a quarter of Canada’s immigrants are working in the fields they trained in, compared to more than sixty per cent for native-born citizens. A government report in 2013 showed that more than a third of recent immigrants to Canada were living in poverty, particularly in immigrant-heavy cities like Toronto and Vancouver, where half of residents are foreign born. The problem has become so acute that policymakers have coined a specific term for this phenomenon of squandered immigrant intellectual talent: brain waste.
The reasons why Canada’s skilled immigrants struggle so mightily are numerous. Immigrants lack the professional and social networks that native job-seekers have, and their knowledge of local markets and practices are understandably limited. Many professions are protected by unions and guilds that erect significant barriers to entry. I have two friends who were successful lawyers in Mexico and Israel, respectively, but who, once they moved here, found that their experience was essentially useless in the eyes of the Law Society of Upper Canada, which is the Canadian equivalent of the American Bar Association, and the Canadian law firms that operate under its rules. Both had to return to law school, at great cost, for several years, all while raising young children, only to compete in the same apprenticeship program with twenty-five-year-olds who were fresh out of law school—all before they were even allowed to bill a single hour.
Professional standards do vary around the world, and no one is keen to go under the knife of a cardiac surgeon who just arrived from a distant country without having her qualifications thoroughly vetted. But I also know of a Canadian cardiac surgeon who trained at the finest teaching hospital in New York, then moved back to Toronto and was made to requalify over several months under strict supervision, as if the practice of cardiovascular medicine in Canada were so radically different from professional norms just a hundred miles to the south. An orthopedic surgeon I met in Argentina lasted just two years after he moved his family to Winnipeg, before his frustration at being unable to practice led him to return the whole family to Buenos Aires. While a shortage of health-care workers continues to plague rural Canadian communities, more than half the foreign-born doctors living in Canada are not practicing medicine, according to figures compiled by academics Michel Girgnon, Yaw Owusu, and Arthur Sweetman. And while some of these people end up finding work in other areas of health care, other medical professionals, including nurses, pharmacists, and and even E.R. surgeons, are driving for Uber, or operating a gas station that they bought when they ran out of other options.
Jeffrey Reitz, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, has been studying this problem in Canada’s immigration system for years. Reitz said that it emerged very shortly after the country adopted a skills-based immigration system, in the nineteen-seventies. “People’s skills are not being used when they immigrate,” Reitz told me, noting that there has actually been a slow decline in the employment success of skilled immigrants over the past forty years, despite the government raising the level of skills that it wants immigrants to have. “The problem of underutilized skills has actually gotten worse,” he said, noting that this could be fertile breeding ground for the sort of anti-immigrant sentiment that Canada has not yet seen. “If immigrants are stumbling and not doing well, then it may eventually undermine the success of the [skilled] immigration program.”
Often, the system falls short on what is broadly defined as “culture fit.” This is the shorthand for the kinds of stereotyping, subtle racism, and general conservatism that some employers have regarding those who look, speak, or think differently than they do. When my wife worked as a corporate headhunter, she was often asked by clients not to send in “new Canadians” as candidates to finance jobs, even if they had worked at investment banks in cities like Singapore, because of a lack of “Canadian experience.” This is a tidy euphemism for “no immigrants wanted,” especially if they are dark-skinned or if English is not their first language.
No society can perfectly cherry-pick the immigrants it needs and have them fit neatly into all the open slots in its economy, like pegs in a hole. Migration is messy; people’s lives aren’t easily tallied as points; and no culture ever fits together perfectly. Behind this notion lies the false belief that we can be like Dubai, bringing in only the wealthiest, best, and brightest, as though immigrants were something to be ordered off a menu.
“In both Canada and the U.S., when you have skilled immigrants with university degrees, they struggle,” Reitz said, noting that the same problem already exists in the United States, though it is dwarfed by issues around illegal immigration. The key, he said, is that the children of skilled immigrants do well, in what he deems “a kind of delayed positive impact.”
The economic reality is that all countries, including Canada, need a wide variety of immigrants from different national, educational, and vocational backgrounds. Despite what Trump says, skilled immigrants, but also unskilled ones, are needed.