In both Canada and the U.S., immigrants comprise a large proportion of university-educated workers who have at least a bachelor’s degree in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field. A 2016 study by Statistics Canada found that immigrants with a bachelor’s degree were more likely to have studied in a STEM field compared to native-born Canadians or Americans. Despite this, more than 50% of STEM-educated immigrant workers still held non-STEM jobs in Canada, while those who held STEM jobs earned 28% less compared to their Canadian-born counterparts. In the US, there was no earning gap between immigrants and native workers. To rectify this issue, the Canadian government has recently implemented newer policies to encourage the immigration of STEM professionals to Canada. Along with other political and societal factors, these policies have successfully contributed to the increase of STEM-educated immigrants.

Income prospects and ease of immigration seem to be the biggest factors in determining migration destinations of highly skilled STEM workers. For example, the aforementioned study by Statistics Canada from 2016 pointed to the wage gap between immigrants and native workers in the US, Canada, and Australia. They reported a high wage gap between immigrant and local workers, especially in Canada and Australia compared to that of the US, which could account for why many highly skilled immigrants prefer the US over other countries. Nevertheless, the number of STEM-educated immigrants in Canada has increased dramatically since the 1990s due to changes in the immigration selection process. Nowadays, the “Express Entry” system, first launched in January 2015, ranks candidates based on their work experience, education, English and French language proficiency, and age, among other categories. Applicants with the highest scores are given the opportunity to apply for permanent residency. The Express Entry system replaced the previous “first come first serve” system, which consisted of an arbitrary selection rather than prioritizing qualified immigrants and had resulted in years-long wait times. Since the launch of the Express Entry system, over 31,000 invitations to apply for permanent residence have been issued to immigrants from all over the world. In addition, the Express Entry system processing time is less than six months—a large improvement from the previous system, which could take years, leaving candidates in limbo.

Canada passport

Immigration to Canada has increased recently due to the turbulent politics in the US as well. In the last four years, former President Trump’s administration signed several executive orders and implemented regulations that focused on restricting immigration. One of the earliest executive orders was the “Muslim Ban”, which banned travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia. Other proposals during this administration included work restrictions on spouses of US visa holders, stricter examinations for Chinese students and scientific visitors, and changes to the H-1B visa for temporary workers. The current H-1B “lottery” system consists of a random selection process that only grants 85,000 visas for more than 200,000 applicants. Last year, former President Trump’s administration proposed a new rule to replace the H-1B lottery system with a merit-based and wage-based system. However, newly elected President Biden announced these changes will be delayed until December 31, 2021. Altogether, these changes in immigration policies have caused a brain drain in the US affecting many companies, such as those in Silicon Valley, where at least 57% of the STEM workers are born outside the US. Now, qualified STEM workers are looking for alternative countries like Canada or even returning to their home countries for better opportunities.

It is worth mentioning that by 2019, US universities faced a whopping 4% decrease in the number of international student applications, with the highest decline in earth and physical sciences (a 9% drop in applications). Instead, Canada has benefited from Trump’s policies, especially within the tech sector. Since 2016, the number of applicants for both student and temporary work visas has surged dramatically in Canada. As a result, the number of issued Canadian study permits increased by more than 50%, while invitations to apply for permanent residency under the Express Entry system increased in number from 600 to over 10,000 for US residents since its launch. Now, with Trump’s administration over, President Biden plans to expand the number of skilled-worker visas granted in the U.S., which may compromise immigration to Canada.

In recent years the Canadian government has made many efforts to motivate international students to seek permanent residency, not only to fill labor shortages but also to contribute to the economic growth and expansion of the labor market. In 2019, more than 58,000 graduates applied successfully for permanent residency in Canada.

However, while we continue to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, newer policies can be implemented to help international students settle permanently while filling areas such as technology, health care, and others, which together will contribute to the recovery from the pandemic on the short-term and on the long-term will help with Canada’s prosperity.


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