New Poll Finds Canadians Ready to Engage Asia to Fill Growing Gap in Skilled Labour

With an aging population, a continuing outmigration of high-skilled Canadians, and the tech-driven changing nature of work, Canada is currently short some half a million skilled workers.

As Canada's new minority Liberal government settles down to the tough task of effectively governing this vast and diverse nation, one critical question largely ignored on the campaign trail will still need to be addressed: How is Canada going to fill its growing shortage of 500,000 skilled workers?

The race to thrive in today's digital global economy has never been fiercer, nor has the competition for acquiring highly educated and high-skilled talent — particularly in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. In Canada, the need for an immediate injection of that talent is clear. With an aging population, a continuing outmigration of high-skilled Canadians, and the tech-driven changing nature of work, Canada is currently short some half a million skilled workers.

Tapping Asia for this missing talent is one obvious solution. The Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada's 2019 National Opinion Poll: Canadian Views on Human Capital from Asia, released Oct. 30, reveals that Canadians are in favour of bringing in high-skilled and highly educated workers from Asia, including from China.

Asia is experiencing a growing trend of outmigration for better opportunities abroad, which presents Canada with an opening to capitalize on this globally mobile talent force. Many Asian countries boast a relatively young and educated labour force. They have also made large investments in research and development and are emerging as research leaders, especially in the tech sector. Consequently, Asian universities are rapidly climbing up the global rankings, further equipping their domestic talent with in-demand skills for the future. And yet, at least for the moment, many of these countries — including economic juggernauts India and China — don't have enough jobs for their bright young citizens.

APF Canada's latest poll finds that 56 per cent of Canadians are worried about the talent shortage in this country and 54 per cent are ready to look to Asia for international talent. As we found in our previous national opinion poll this year on high-tech investment from Asia, Canadians are well aware of the growing importance of Asia in the fields of science, technology, and innovation — a sentiment that is likely fuelling the current support for international talent migration from Asia.

Surprisingly, that support extends to China, a country with which Canada has had tense relations since the events surrounding the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request late last year. Despite this chill, our polling actually found that the majority of Canadians still support bringing in Chinese talent, particularly highly educated workers with STEM skills (65 per cent) and scientists (59 per cent) in the STEM fields.

Despite our own many attributes, including rights, freedoms, diversity, and natural splendour, Canada may not be as attractive to international talent as we may think. A recent World Economic Forum report ranked Canada 62nd globally for "ease of hiring foreign labour" and 21st for "ease of finding skilled employees." By comparison, the U.S. was ranked 31st and first in the same categories, respectively. To become competitive globally in attracting core talent, Canada's current immigration policies will need to be revisited. This was a core recommendations of a new Century Initiative report on easing Canada's pathway to immigration for international students.

APF Canada's new poll identifies immigration policies that would have the support of the Canadian public, including encouraging university students to gain experiences in Canada (77 per cent), extending the length of temporary work permits for international talent (70 per cent), encouraging family reunification for international talent (67 per cent), and reducing barriers to foreign credential recognition (63 per cent).

While Canadians tend to place an individual's skills and training above their place of birth when listing priorities for the acquisition of international talent, there is still support from 58 per cent of Canadians for weighing characteristics of the countries providing the potential talent. For example, some think countries that share Canadian values and have good bilateral relations with Canada should be given priority.

Given our current state of affairs with Beijing, it is perhaps not surprising that Canadians aren't as comfortable with attracting talent from China (56 per cent) as they are from the European Union (75 per cent), the U.S. (71 per cent) and other Asian countries such as India (64 per cent), the Philippines (64 per cent), and South Korea (67 per cent). Similarly, Canadian public policies that would touch specifically on talent from China found 10 per cent less support on average than those directed at Asian talent more broadly.

The level of support for bringing in Asian talent may also be affected by Canadians' lack of awareness about the region, and underscores the need to bolster the "Asia competency" of Canadians as the new centre of gravity in the global economy shifts from the West to the East.

The Canadian economy is taking a critical hit from a shortage of workers for skilled positions. Highly educated and high-skilled workers from Asia can contribute greatly to Canada's future economic prosperity, and APF Canada's latest polling data indicates Canadians support that engagement.

They believe that with the proper immigration policies in place, this talent could enrich and embolden our diverse nation. But the clock is ticking: Canada needs to act on this opportunity immediately as the surplus of high-skilled talent from Asian countries may soon disappear, reabsorbed into the dynamically evolving economies of Asia that gave it rise.

This piece was first published in The Vancouver Sun on November 4, 2019.