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

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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.”

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.”