Canadian immigration policy meets the 4th Industrial Revolution

  • March 04, 2020
  • Naumaan Hameed

It goes without saying that the skills needed to support the Canadian economy now are not the same as they were 10 years ago, nor will they be the same 10 years from now. As technology and innovation continuously reshape the marketplace, global businesses are seeing an emergence of highly specialized roles. Rapid advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, and other technologies are changing the very nature of the occupations that use them. These advances are also creating new occupations – faster than the marketplace can develop the talent to appropriately fill them.

The problem seems to be that many of these new occupations are in demand much sooner than anyone anticipated. For example, a self-driving car is no longer fantasy or science fiction – this technology is already in the marketplace. In 2016, Ontario launched a 10-year pilot project allowing driverless cars to be tested on Ontario roads, which resulted in tech entrepreneurs and transportation companies rushing to Toronto to invest in projects to develop the most advanced self-driving vehicles on the market. More recently, Uber launched its self-driving transportation lab in Toronto where it plans to invest $200 million and build a staff complement of over 500 employees by 2023[1].

This sounds great for the economy. So, where is the problem?

These self-driving cars need self-driving car mechanics whose job description includes both the traditional duties of a car mechanic and the computational aspects of a software engineer. This is a job category that doesn’t yet exist in the National Occupation Classification (NOC) system. But more on that later.

Currently, the size of the Canadian talent pool is simply not large enough to meet emerging demands. In fact, according to a recent report by the Information and Communications Technology Council, the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) sector in Canada will need to fill approximately 216,000 technology-related positions by 2021.

Addressing the shortage with a Global Skills Strategy  

To address these talent shortages, Canada’s Global Skills Strategy gives Canadian employers a predictable and consistent means to attract global talent to Canada in two weeks or less. In particular, the Global Talent Stream program allows companies to quickly access foreign workers in certain occupations. The GTS has two categories under which employers can bring foreign talent into Canada.

Under Category A, only employers that have been referred by one of GTS’s Designated Partners are eligible to apply. Designated partners, of which there are 30 to 40 across the country, are brought into the process to assess and advise on whether a company should be referred to the program based on their intention to foster innovation in Canada, and whether their plans are supported by the need for foreign talent. The DP could also validate the need for a volume of workers to execute a strategy. Employers must demonstrate that the requested position requires highly unique and specialized talent not available to them in Canada. Notably, Category A was designed to help select employers access a very limited number of unique roles per year and does not support access to high numbers of foreign workers.

Under Category B, employers can hire skilled foreign workers in occupations found on the Global Talent Occupations list. The listed occupations, which include traditional STEM roles, are considered to be in-demand and without sufficient domestic labour supply. 

Employers participating in the GTS program must submit a Labour Market Benefits Plan. This is a written commitment to identify and track job creation, skills and training investments that benefit the Canadian economy through employing highly skilled global talent.

Understanding challenges facing the GTS program to meet future skills needs 

The Global Skills Strategy and the GTS program have made Canada an attractive destination for global technology companies. There is no doubt that our immigration programs are significant factors to executives developing their global talent strategies and growth plans. However, when the GTS was originally conceptualized, it was a response to filling the traditional skills shortage facing technology companies rather than the evolving skills shortage of today. As it stands, GTS categories cannot fully accommodate the new and emerging occupations that are needed to propel Canada’s innovation economy forward. 

The main challenge facing the GTS framework relates to the previously mentioned NOC system. The NOC is a standardized system for describing the work performed in the Canadian labour market with each occupation fitting under a corresponding NOC code. Each occupation on the Global Talent Occupation List under GTS Category B has a corresponding NOC Code, but these NOC codes do not adequately capture emerging occupations. For example, because the occupation did not exist when NOC codes were created, there is no code that combines the two required skill sets of the self-driving car mechanic (i.e. automobile mechanic and software engineer). 

Another occupation that is not captured by existing NOC codes is a drone manager. This role requires an educational background in engineering and the technical skills of an avionic mechanic. The NOC code used for engineering managers does not encompass the technical aspects of avionics, and the NOC code for avionic mechanic does not meet the educational requirements for a drone manager. This is especially problematic given the increased presence of drone technology in the global marketplace. Amazon recently announced the launch of Prime Air, a drone delivery system designed to get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less using a network of drones. It currently has 175 global vacancies for drone-related jobs, including in Canada.[2]

The fact that there is no appropriate NOC code for this occupation—and many other emerging occupations—creates uncertainty for global employers.

The NOC also presents challenges related to formal educational requirements, as the system assumes that most occupations have a related educational requirement. However, the speed at which emerging technologies are creating new occupations with less traditional skills and requirements is making it difficult for educational institutions to keep up. Jobs of the future may not require formal education, but rather emphasize self-taught skills or skills developed outside of a formal educational program. This creates a disconnect between the current NOC system’s educational requirements and the economic reality of the market, which could be a barrier to Canadian employers who need foreign skilled workers to fill advanced occupations. It’s time for Canada to consider new and innovative approaches to the NOC system.

Expanding the Global Talent Stream: Canada’s necessary next steps

Reinventing the GTS program will be essential for Canadian businesses to continue competing on the global stage. As many countries further restrict access to foreign labour, proactively updating immigration policies in anticipation of emerging new occupations allows Canada to remain a global talent enabler. While the GTS program has gone a long way in helping many technology companies access high-skilled foreign workers, a revamp is needed to position Canada as a leader in the next wave of technological disruption. 

The Canadian government could consider adding a “Category C” to the Global Talent Stream to address the next generation of skills needed to support Canadian innovation and business growth. Category C could require Canadian employers to provide a detailed explanation of a future role and a summary of these highly valuable skills. 

Importantly, a ‘future skills’ category could eliminate the struggle to find an existing NOC code for a role that is evolving or can’t be captured by traditional occupations. Instead, a future skills category should adopt a similar approach to Category A and be referred to a Designated Partner so that industry experts can weigh in and validate the relevance of emerging skills and occupations for employers seeking to produce innovative products, services and solutions in Canada. Experts in fields like AI and machine learning are in the best position to determine the impact of these new skills and what is required to deliver next generation ideas.

Retaining future skills

Almost as important as getting future skills to Canada is keeping them here. Once businesses attract foreign talent in new occupations, they must consider how they will retain new talent for the long term. Currently, Canada’s Express Entry program selects economic immigrants for permanent residency status based on a comprehensive ranking system (CRS). 

A maximum of 1,200 CRS points are awarded to candidates based on their human capital factors (i.e. age, level of education, language proficiency and Canadian work experience) and additional factors including an “enhanced” provincial nomination, siblings in Canada, Canadian education or a qualifying offer of arranged employment. Candidates in the Express Entry pool are ranked by their CRS points. The government periodically selects applicants by setting thresholds for invitations to apply based on CRS points. 

Canada’s merit-based immigration system is a world leader in processing economic applicants in a transparent and highly efficient manner. That said, the Express Entry program will need to recalibrate the way points are awarded to ensure applicants holding “future skills” are recognized for their unique contribution to the Canadian labour market and given a leg up on PR status.

For example, foreign nationals could be awarded bonus points for holding a “future skills work permit” under a new Category C to ensure they are invited to apply for permanent residence, despite the possibility of not scoring well on standard human capital factors such as education or years of work experience. This approach would be similar to the bonus 200 CRS points that are allocated for arranged employment in very senior-level occupations such as chief executive officer. Overall, Express Entry must also be modernized to ensure Canada’s immigration system can retain a new demographic of future skills, which will look very different to the profile of a traditional skilled worker.

Leading the 4th Industrial Revolution

Bottom line: if Canada wants to help Canadian-headquartered companies become globally relevant, future talent should be anticipated and factored into the GTS program. This is particularly relevant for companies requiring higher volumes of future talent skills from around the world to scale their businesses in the global economy.

Canada shows leadership in supporting high-growth technology companies through progressive immigration models. To meet the next wave of opportunity, the country has to go one step further and update immigration programs to reflect the needs of emerging occupations. This could place Canada in a position to remain a top destination for companies seeking to scale across North America.

Ultimately, strategic changes to the Global Talent Stream program can make Canada resilient to the next tsunami of talent shortages brought on by the 4th Industrial Revolution. 

Naumaan Hameed is a Partner and Canadian Practice Leader at KPMG Law LLP, in Toronto, and a Certified Specialist in Immigration Law.

[1] Toronto Life, How to Build a Driverless Car, May 13, 2019

[2] Amazon Jobs, Exploring New Opportunities