This unique approach to unlocking immigrants’ full workforce participation will be critical to Canada’s post-COVID recovery — here’s why

Why It Matters

As part of Canada’s plan to rebuild the economy post-COVID, the federal government aims to welcome a record number of immigrants into the country in 2021 — but to fully unlock the country’s economic recovery, Canada needs to go beyond immigration numbers and tackle other internal employment gaps that newcomers in the country face.

This story is in sponsorship with the TELUS Pollinator Fund for Good.

Diana Henderson currently lives in Grand Prairie, Alberta, along with her husband and young daughter. While working at an immigrant support organization, she’s currently studying to get her Chartered Professional Accountant certification in Canada — a designation that will allow her to return to her work as a financial analyst. It’s a career she spent eight years in back in Mexico, but that she hasn’t worked in since she first landed in Canada in 2016 to be with her husband.

“When I got my work permit, I started looking for jobs,” Henderson says. “That was when I first realized that I wouldn’t be able go back to my field if I didn’t get my CPA. I tried to get jobs as a financial analyst, but they wouldn’t hire me, because they said I needed the CPA certification — it didn’t matter if I had a Master’s degree in financial law.”

Through her work in immigration, however, Henderson came to know of Windmill Microlending, a registered charity that provides low-interest, flexible loans to newcomers in Canada to help them cover the cost of Canadian licensing or credentials, and a recent investee of the TELUS Pollinator Fund for Good. Through Windmill, newcomers can take out loans of up to $15,000 with an interest rate of Prime + 1.5 percent. Most recipients will only need to pay interest during their studies, with principal and interest paid over the next two years once schooling ends. Recipients also receive coaching and mentorship during their time with Windmill. 

“When I did connect with Windmill, they were very understanding, made the process super easy, and simplified a lot of their requirements,” Henderson says. “It was encouraging — and I’m happy to be returning to the field I was in in Mexico.” 

As a young, quickly growing country, programs like Windmill’s benefit Canada just as much as they do the newcomers receiving the loans: Canada has long depended on a steady influx of skilled immigrants to keep its economy growing. Home to an aging population and a steadily shrinking birth rate, immigration has been a cornerstone of Canada’s long-term economic growth for decades, with approximately 300,000 newcomers settling in the country each year. 

Canada’s immigration program has had strong results: currently, foreign-born residents make up 21 percent of the national population, and Canada falls within the top four Western countries for the number of migrants it takes in each year. Yet, even with ambitious immigration targets set for the next few years, the Canadian government predicts that by 2035, when 5 million Canadians are set to retire, there will be only two working-age Canadians for every retired individual across the country. (In 1971, that worker-to-retiree ratio was closer to seven to one.) According to economic experts, this imbalance could lead to decreasing economic growth due to labour shortages and the inability to adequately support Canada’s aging population throughout retirement.

In 2020, however, the COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing restrictions “essentially stopped” population growth in Canada, according to Statistics Canada, with only 184,370 new immigrants entering the country — about half of the amount Canada was originally forecasting for, and the lowest rates the country has seen since 1998. And this pause has come just as the world has experienced an economic slowdown, with over a million Canadians still un- or underemployed a year into the pandemic.

For Canada to recover economically from COVID-19, the federal government’s goal of attracting 401,000 new immigrants to Canada in 2021 is a good first step. But there’s also more that Canadian companies and communities can do to support Canada’s existing and new immigrants in fully participating in the Canadian workforce and economy.

Canada’s immigrants remain underemployed

Despite a strong focus on attracting skilled immigrants to Canada, foreign-born residents tend to face higher levels of under- and unemployment than Canadian-born residents. In 2017, the unemployment rate for working-age newcomers was 6.4 percent, compared to 5 percent for Canadian-born residents. Newcomers also tend to be under-employed more often, with only 24 percent of foreign-educated immigrants in Canada working in the profession they trained for, compared to 62 percent of Canadian-born residents. When you tally the losses across the country, the under- and unemployment of skilled immigrants costs Canada over $30 billion a year — approximately 2 percent of the GDP — in lost income.

That’s a gap that has only widened with COVID-19, says Claudia Hepburn, CEO of Windmill Microlending. COVID obviously destroyed many of the survival jobs that immigrants take when they first arrive in Canada — or sometimes take and then stay in for the rest of their lives,” Hepburn tells Future of Good. “This is particularly true for jobs held by immigrant women.”

Xenophobia stands out as an obvious issue when it comes to encouraging newcomers’ full workforce participation in Canada, and with COVID-19, it’s a challenge that has only worsened. According to Statistics Canada, 40 percent of recent newcomers have reported an increase in discrimination over the course of the pandemic. But there are three other barriers newcomers face when joining Canada’s workforce, says Hepburn.

“Employers often don’t know how to evaluate the past work experience and academic credentials of immigrants, so it can seem like it’s just easier and lower risk to hire somebody with Canadian credentials,” Hepburn tells Future of Good. “Immigrants also don’t have professional or social networks to help them out. And a large barrier is that some jobs require Canadian accreditation, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars and take years to accomplish.”

Recipients of Windmill’s microloans are able to triple their income, on average, and unemployment rates among recipients drop from approximately 40 percent to 7 percent after receiving a microloan. Fifty five percent of recipients land jobs in healthcare, while others go into finance, engineering, education, government, and management — many areas where Canada will need to fill gaps in employment in coming years.


Building an economy that includes all Canadians

One of the largest challenges Windmill Microlending faces at the moment is in scaling their programming. In the coming years, Windmill is hoping to scale the number of newcomers they help from 1,000 a year to 4,000 — a challenge made harder considering that they work with clients from more than 135 countries and across 10 provinces. Reaching new immigrants at the right time in their journey — after they have initially settled into their new communities and when Windmill’s loan and coaching will make the most impact — can be tricky, but is essential.

“When it comes to enabling inclusive communities, we’re investing in companies committed to furthering social and economic inclusion,” Blair Miller, managing partner of the TELUS Pollinator Fund for Good, tells Future of Good. Through its unique corporate social impact investment fund intended to drive social innovation, a key pillar of the Pollinator Fund for Good aims to enable equal access to education and training in communities across Canada. The TELUS Pollinator Fund is an investor through Windmill’s Community Bond program — an innovative approach to bringing in more capital to support the loans that Windmill makes.

And when it comes to furthering newcomers’ involvement in Canada’s workforce and economy, Hepburn says everyone has a part to play. Organizations of all sizes can make a conscious effort to actively hire newcomers, and to be flexible to their unique needs as they settle into their new lives in Canada. Hepburn also suggests people consider mentoring immigrants, as newly arrived individuals often don’t have the professional connections, social circles, or Canadian professional history needed to get a foot in the door. Volunteering for an immigrant-serving organization can be a great way to get involved for those who aren’t sure where to start.

While the benefits of these initiatives to newcomers are clear, Canada has even more to gain from helping close the employment gap for new Canadians. Ensuring that immigrants are able to work in the fields that they’ve trained for can help fill workforce gaps, boost incomes and spending, and lead to higher levels of entrepreneurship that create more jobs.