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Immigration report shows skills don't always match job market

A report on the Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot also shows the North still needs to attract more immigrants 
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A northern research report has found that while the main immigration stream used by permanent residents in Northern Ontario’s five largest cities is economic, the jobs the newcomers have applied to fill don’t quite align with labour market vacancy rates. 

Part of the new series by the Northern Policy Institute (NPI) called All Roads Lead Home: Immigration flows into Ontario’s north and what this means for RNIP impacts, Mercedes Labelle, author and Lead Analyst at Northern Policy Institute, lays out current immigration levels and characteristics for each of Northern Ontario’s five Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot program cities: Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, North Bay, Timmins, and Sudbury.  

The Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot (RNIP) was created in 2020 as a three-year program to encourage newcomers to Canada to settle in rural areas and Northern Ontario, rather than in big cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. It is based on the applicant securing a job offer before they apply. 

The newcomer candidates need to demonstrate their intention to reside long-term in the city, to become a part of the fabric of Northern Ontario. They must also complete extensive paperwork, as well as numerous interviews, in-depth evaluations of the job offer and review by the selection committee. If the applicant is successful, they will be recommended to Immigration Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) for permanent residency. 

The RNIP program has been implemented across the five largest communities in Northern Ontario as they are experiencing job vacancy rates between five and 55 per cent in some occupations. 

But as it turns out, Labelle said at the moment, there is a disconnect between targeted occupations under the RNIP and what is really needed. 

“RNIP is a community-driven economic development immigration stream, where the community identifies the occupations that have the most need,” Labelle told Sudbury.com. “What we found in this paper is that there's little alignment between occupations of recent immigrants and occupations that have the highest vacancy rate.” 

The ‘highest vacancy rate’ is calculated by comparing job postings to the total labour market and “identifying data-driven labour market statistics,” said Labelle. 

She said while the RNIP program has shifted the focus to more demand-based targeting, there is still considerable variance between jobs in highest demand and the occupations targeted by RNIP.

The research report put forward five recommendations to be considered, which include annual and ongoing monitoring of the program, community-specific assessments and expanded analysis, undertaking Welcoming Francophone Community initiatives – referring to the specific program focused on attracting Francophone newcomers to Northern Ontario –  as well as 

“Strengthening the alignment between labour market shortages, targeted occupations, postsecondary institutional fields of study, and immigrant-intended occupations to maximize economic outcomes,” states the report.

Of course, Labelle notes there have been some unexpected challenges in the early years of the pilot program. 

“No one really expected this to be going on during a global pandemic,” said Labelle. “The first two years of the RNIP pilot program were in the midst of COVID, so it's really hard to plan for things like that.”

And now that most people are easing into recovery, Labelle said another unexpected challenge appeared.  “We're seeing a ton of labour market shortages emerge and signing bonuses popping up for occupations,” she said. “With a labour market that's changing so rapidly, we need to continuously update this data and also the projected future.”

There is a desperate need for newcomers to Northern Ontario, said Labelle, and also, the need to keep them here.  A 2021 report stated that the North must attract 1,700 new residents a year minimum for 20 years just to keep pace.

“Our (Northern) demographics are older on average than Ontario and we have high levels of youth out migration, so there's not going to be enough people to backfill all these retirees in the coming years, which will make our communities economically unsustainable,” said Labelle. “We absolutely need to not only attract immigrants, but retain people already in the communities and make sure that they're participating in the labor force to the fullest extent.”

The research report notes that retention of immigrants in the first year following admission averages 70 per cent, meaning approximately 30 per cent of immigrants are leaving Greater Sudbury within their first year of gaining permanent residence.

But consistent analysis of labour market data will help, said Labelle. 

“Immigrants are less likely to leave if they have a meaningful employment opportunity, meaning they're working in an occupation that truly is in need, and they have stable employment with a welcoming employer.”

Housing is also an indicator of a welcoming community, said Labelle, meaning that suitable, affordable and adequate housing is necessary. 

“We can see through this paper that recent immigrants are less likely to be home owners than more established immigrants,” said Labelle, “and taking that step from renter to an owner really helped solidify retention in the communities.”

Labelle said more answers will be available when there is new data available. 

“As I'm sure everyone knows, the housing market has skyrocketed, prices of housing and affordability is really out of touch for a lot of Canadians and a lot of immigrants,” said Labelle. “We'll be interested to see the impact that has on retention, attraction, and the ability to settle in a community.”

Labelle said one finding that surprised her was that, based on 2020 data, Sudbury had the lowest vacancy rate. “Meaning Sudbury wasn’t facing as severe labor shortages as the other big five, which really surprised me, especially because this data does reflect COVID.”

As 2022 is the final year of the three-year pilot program, Labelle said she hopes the program will continue and has faith that it will, based on the success of RNIP, as well as the community-driven Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program, which Labelle said was made permanent. 

She said the biggest key to success in the program is the collaboration within the community, what she refers to as a “community hug.” 

“What makes the RNIP so unique is the understanding of collaboration needed within a community to fully welcome an immigrant,” said Labelle.  “It's not only making sure services are available to the immigrant, but it's also making sure that services are available to the employer.”

Labelle said that in addition to monitoring, data collection and analysis, the community will be the real indicator of success. “I'm glad immigration is at the forefront, and I’m glad it's being led by the community,” she said. 

You can read the full report from the Northern Policy Institute here

Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with Sudbury.com. She covers the diverse communities of Sudbury, especially the vulnerable or marginalized, including the Black, Indigenous, newcomer and Francophone communities, as well as 2SLGBTQ+ and issues of the downtown core.