University key to keeping immigrant brain power

Western News File PhotoSociology professor Michael Haan, Canada Research Chair in Migration and Ethnic Relations, believes Western needs to contribute to the city’s effort in attracting and retaining immigrants. Data collected for the 2016 Census, released by Statistics Canada last week, indicates nearly 22 per cent of Canadians are immigrants, the highest share the country has seen in 85 years.

Like Canada, London is seeing a large influx of highly educated immigrants. But if the Forest City has any hope of retaining its foreign-born population, Western needs to be a big piece of the effort, according to one Western researcher.

Data collected for the 2016 Census, released by Statistics Canada last week, indicates nearly 22 per cent of Canadians are immigrants, the highest share the country has seen in 85 years. From 2011-16, the country welcomed 1.2 million new immigrants. Statistics Canada estimates say immigrants could represent up to 30 per cent of all Canadians by 2036.

What’s more, those coming to Canada are more educated than ever before, with rates of postsecondary education more than double their Canadian-born counterparts. Educated newcomers already make up nearly half of the labour force in major centres, like Toronto and Vancouver.

These are promising, if unsurprising, statistics, said Sociology professor Michael Haan, Canada Research Chair in Migration and Ethnic Relations and Co-Director of the Statistics Canada Research Data Centre at Western.

But if the story is to be a good news story for London – which he sees as a microcosm of Canada – Western needs to play a role in not only attracting international students, but helping retain these individuals once they complete their studies.

“Western could think more about trying to see itself as a population growth engine and a population engine within the local economy,” Haan noted.

“The census release was confirming a lot of what we saw coming down the road already – lots of recent immigrants, lots of educated immigrants. About half of recent immigrants have bachelor’s degrees or higher when they come – and that’s just to London. That’s far higher than the rate of less recent immigrants or even the Canadian-born. Think of it as a hierarchy where the lowest level of education is among the Canadian-born population in the London census metropolitan area,” he continued.

“This is a good news story, of course, but we have to ensure people are properly employed. Part of what (Western) could do is show what proportion of international students are sticking around after they finish degrees.”

What muddies this story for London, Haan added, is London’s retention rates are not great. We attract a lot of immigrants, but they do not do well here. Earnings in London are bimodal, with immigrants (and non-immigrants, for that matter) either doing really well or not well at all. There’s not a lot in between.

The recent influx of educated immigrants can be attributed more broadly to Canada bringing in more immigrants, not London attracting more, he continued.

“For the size of the city – we have 475,000 in the census metropolitan area in Census 2016 – we are welcoming maybe 3,000 immigrants a year. That is quite a bit less than 1 per cent. Whereas the country, overall, is accepting almost 1 per cent of its population size, we’re over a million now in the next three years, over a population of 36 million, so almost 1 per cent of the population is added each year. We’re not getting our share of that,” Hann noted.

Students are more or less on their own when they want to come to Canada and the university is not providing them with supports, he continued, and this might be because Western hasn’t thought of itself as being part of the innovation and population growth engine in the region.

Census data paints London as an attractive place to work and live, Haan added.

Commute times are low, with one third of the city’s population being able to get to work in less than 15 minutes, and another third in less than 20. Time is a commodity, he stressed, and London excels in this regard.

Earnings are good in London. Manufacturing has rebounded. Given what the economy has endured in the last decade, we are doing well, he continued. Focusing our attention on the immigrant population coming in will help us do better.

“If we harness the human capital of immigrants coming in, and we learn more about the types of immigrants coming in, that’s really vital. We don’t know who we are attracting. This is shocking to me; when people come here with a university degree, we don’t know if it is in philosophy or life sciences,” he said.

While manufacturing was a big part of London’s identity, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to focus on that sector anymore, Haan explained. Life sciences and health sciences are exciting growth opportunities for London, and ones that could attract more international students and immigrants who want to stay and work in the city.

As for London’s most discouraging statistic – having the lowest employment rate of any city in Canada – Haan wants to underscore the promise immigration offers as a remedy.

“We have fewer people in the labour force than comparable cities so we really need to embrace immigration. Immigrants have much higher labour force participation rates. If we’re going to bring ourselves up so were not dead last, we really need to bring our heads around immigration and what we need to do to bring and keep people here.”