Despite economic turmoil in 2022, Canada continues to experience a very tight labour market. And in many professions — from healthcare to engineering — jobs continue to go unfilled. The answer to this challenge, according to many: Strengthen the pathways from classrooms to citizenship, and leverage the growing presence of international students — now totalling some 600,000 — to meet Canada’s pressing labour needs.
In this episode of Disruptors, an RBC podcast, hosts John Stackhouse and Trinh Theresa Do speak with two women leading the charge to foster and retain top international talent. In the first half of the show, they speak to Larissa Bezo — the president and CEO of the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE). The CBIE is a national, non-profit organization helping Canadian education institutions achieve their internationalization goals.
And in the second half, they chat with Pat Chaisang, a former international student from Thailand (now based in Vancouver) who has launched Isempower: a job-search platform for international students hoping to secure meaningful work in Canada.
To learn more about the work of the Canadian Bureau of International Education — and its advocacy for international students — check out its website.
Isempower describes itself as “Canada’s first job search platform for international students.” To find out more, follow this link.
In the episode, Theresa and John reference a new report from RBC Economics and Thought Leadership called “Course Correction: How International Students Can Help Solve Canada’s Labour Crisis.” You can read it here.
Speaker 1 [00:00:01] Hi. It’s John here.
Speaker 2 [00:00:02] And it’s Theresa.
Speaker 1 [00:00:03] Theresa! It’s been a moment since we were in front of these microphones. How was your summer?
Speaker 2 [00:00:09] Oh, my summer felt too short, as always. But my friends and I traveled to Colombia for the first time. A beautiful country. And I got to try fresh chocolate, fresh coffee on the very farm where they were planted and harvested. And that’s one of the best parts of traveling for me, the joy of experiencing and learning new things in new countries. How was your summer, John?
Speaker 1 [00:00:30] It was fantastic. Maybe not as exotic as Colombia, but we got to the Maritimes and P.E.I., which is one of our favorite places in Canada, certainly, and extraordinary seafood, as always in abundance and traveling through Atlantic Canada. It was also amazing to see what isn’t in abundance, which is people. Canada, as we all know, has all sorts of challenges in the labour force, and it’s only getting more acute as we come out of the pandemic. And no matter where you go in this country, it’s fascinating to see the role that students and international students are playing in filling that void. There are now, believe it or not, 600,000 roughly international students in Canada at all levels of study. It’s a really important part of our country’s progress economically and socially and will likely continue through the 2020s.
Speaker 2 [00:01:22] And we have a new report hot off the presses that aims to tackle those very issues. It’s called Course Correction How International Students Can Help Solve Canada’s Labour Crisis. And there are some pretty telling numbers in there about what they mean for our education system and our economy. For instance, a little under one fifth of all new permanent residents have had prior Canadian study experience. And critically, John, international students are 30% more likely than domestic students to study engineering and more than twice as likely to study in math and computer science. These are the top two areas of projected labour shortages in Canada, but we’re seeing increasing competition for this talent. The number of international students per year is set to be more than 7 million globally by 2030. So advance and emerging economies around the world are eyeing new ways to educate and keep this top talent. But the challenge for Canada, I think, is how do we create clear pathways to citizenship and employment for our most promising students?
Speaker 1 [00:02:24] Absolutely. And over the next three years, Canada is set to welcome more than 1.3 million new immigrants. Immigration already accounts for almost 100% of labour force growth. We’re going to have to look at not only ways of attracting international students, but keeping them here and getting them on that pathway from classroom to citizenship and probably finding new ways of doing that. Can we find the resolve and the ingenuity to fully integrate today’s students into the labour market of tomorrow? This is Disruptors an RBC podcast. I’m John Stackhouse.
Speaker 2 [00:03:04] And I’m from Theresa Do. On this episode, we’re looking at Canada’s international education system and how we can build a talent pipeline to meet the needs of a rapidly changing economy. After the break, we’ll hear from a Vancouver based entrepreneur who came to Canada as an international student. She was born in Thailand and is now helping other students find permanent work here.
Speaker 1 [00:03:30] But first, we’ll introduce you to a woman who works with governments, colleges and universities to achieve Canada’s international education goals. Larissa Bezo is president and CEO of the Canadian Bureau for International Education. That’s an Ottawa based nonprofit working to make Canada a world leader in international education through advocacy, capacity building and partnerships. Larissa, welcome to Disruptors.
Speaker 3 [00:03:52] Thanks, John.
Speaker 1 [00:03:53] I wonder if we can start first with your organization and give us a bit of background on what specifically you do.
Speaker 3 [00:04:00] So as you mentioned, CBE is a national association. Canada’s education institutions right across the spectrum from K-12 school boards, across the post-secondary space. Those institutions are CBUS members. And in a space where we have a federation and constitutional authority around education is provincial jurisdiction. There’s a need for actors such as CBC to help represent Canada in that global arena. So CBC is, in fact, that association that helps broker relationships and certainly supports mobility, including inbound student mobility for Canada.
Speaker 1 [00:04:32] And as we said in the intro, the arena is growing quite significantly. Probably not. A lot of Canadians appreciate that international student enrollment in Canadian post-secondary institutions more than doubled between 2010 and 2020. And since 2016, that growth has been entirely driven by international students. I wonder, Larissa, how risky it is to rely so heavily on that trend.
Speaker 3 [00:04:57] You know, you’re right to point out we’ve seen exponential growth. Our previous federal international education strategy set a target by 2015, which we surpassed several years in advance. We saw almost 285% growth pre-pandemic over the last decade. And since the pandemic, if to take into account the contraction that we saw over that two year period, we’re still seeing 135% growth overall in terms of the inbound number of students across all levels of study. And all indications as we look at the end of 2021 numbers is, is that we’re certainly positioned for strong recovery. I think the challenge becomes how we shore up that pipeline in innovative ways and how we, in fact, focus on the pathway post-graduation if we’re really serious about trying to innovate and harness that global talent pipeline. There’s some collaboration and innovation that we need to see to actually ensure that there’s stickiness and that there’s connection into our communities to actually convert those students and learners post-graduation into active community members and contributors to the labour market.
Speaker 2 [00:06:00] I’d like to go back to the impact of the pandemic that you just briefly mentioned, Larissa. So let’s talk about that contraction a little bit. We know that the number of study visas that were issued dropped 25% in the first six months of 2020. How would you describe the situation now for international students in Canada?
Speaker 3 [00:06:18] So the situation was such with borders being closed, with mobility really grinding to a halt, that we had to innovate around how we continue to support the learning of of our international students. We saw tremendous temporary policy flexibilities come from the Canadian government, which were very, very welcome. That helped to position as well. We allowed flexibilities in terms of how time was counted towards the post-graduate work permits, many other innovations. We saw exceptions for international students when mobility became possible to ensure that we continue to be able to shore up that pathway. The CBC administered a survey of over 40,000 international students last November, December. It’s a longitudinal survey we’ve been running since 2012. But the survey results really, really underscored how well Canada, in fact, navigated that pandemic. Students very much gave Canada high marks and high ratings in terms of managing that period. And, you know, putting that pathway into perspective over the medium to long term. And the demand is still strong. Canada’s reputation is very strong based on those surveys results, and it continues to be. And so the question then becomes how do we, in fact, enhance those pathways? Because what’s happening globally has been to Canada’s advantage in in recent years, pre-pandemic, but many are beginning to up their game, whether that be in the U.K., whether that’s what’s happening south of the border, whether that’s what we’re seeing happen in Australia, New Zealand, they’re aggressively reinvigorating their campaigns, clearing pathways to really focus in on harnessing that global talent pipeline. And there’s considerable work for Canada to do to course, correct us, as you’ve pointed out, to ensure that we’re really mobilizing the potential, those students for Canada and for our future prosperity.
Speaker 1 [00:08:02] What would be the most significant thing Canada could do in this moment to course correct?
Speaker 3 [00:08:06] There’s two or three things I would point to. One at. Very clear that we have a disconnect between labour market forecasting and international student recruitment. And I think as a country, we need to better connect the dots between labour market forecasting and that recruitment and work systematically to remove barriers that stand in the way. I think the other piece is, and we saw this very predominantly coming out of the survey when it comes to post-graduation, it’s not simply about offering our international students a job. International students that are considering staying in Canada are interested in community, and the one area where students are least connected is to the communities. They have strong connections to those on campus. They have strong connections to Canadian students, but when it comes to community, they feel disconnected. And when they’re making decisions in plans post-graduation, we need them, you know, from the very early stages to be connected to community. And that requires the engagement of municipal governments, provincial governments, other stakeholders within those communities to be able to not only provide important supports to connect those students, but I think also there’s considerably more that we can do in the way of policy innovation around connecting students to opportunities both within community and labour market at a much earlier stage in their learning journeys.
Speaker 2 [00:09:21] I’m really curious and interested in what you mean by communities because that’s in some respects unique to each individual. How do we scale something like that?
Speaker 3 [00:09:31] Well, I think one of the pieces for students at a much earlier stage in in that immigration process, once an individual formally joins a part of the permanent residency pathway, they have access to all kinds of settlement and other support services. International students at this point in time, with one or two notable provincial exceptions, do not have access to those kinds of wraparound supports, initiatives that seek to kind of connect them to the different aspects of community, whether that be, you know, social involvement, whether that be through health and other types of supports, whether that be through volunteer opportunities making and extending those types of support services available to students from our perspective. I think there is a there’s a case to be made in terms of a return on investment, a relatively small investment of resources to begin to help them put roots down into the communities. Because we see when that happens at an early stage and we have seen some piloting of initiatives, you look to Atlantic Canada, for example, the study and state program that’s been around for several years now that has an impact mentorship, for example, where you’re building relationships across sectors to be able to start to forge relationships and to support the successful transition of those students. The earlier we have those interventions and the greater our ability to scale up those interventions right across the country, the greater success we’re going to have in terms of really harnessing this global talent pipeline for Canada.
Speaker 1 [00:11:01] When you look around the world and particularly at the countries that would be our biggest competitors like the United States, for that international talent, what do you think Canada needs to be obsessed with most to keep or advance our position.
Speaker 3 [00:11:15] Make much more explicit what we have on offer the quality of the education system. You know, our reputation as a safe and stable country, a tolerant country, it will continue to make us a destination of choice. But what distinguishes us and what do we have to offer? And I think it’s very clear, certainly from our international student survey, that students are looking for the whole experience. And for those who have a desire to pursue PR, they’re really looking for a community to embrace them, a place to make plans for their future children, a place where they can see themselves. And so part of the challenge that I think we face is we’re not very good at being explicit about what Canada has to offer. It’s there, but we’re very passive about it. You know, you look at the kind of money that some of our competitor countries pour into branding and making that branding explicit. Now’s the time to to put Canada on the map in a much more explicit way. We have to demonstrate ways in which, you know, we offer something unique. And the fact that we’re seen as inclusive and that we’re seen as moving ahead in a way that is sensitive and focused on sustainable approaches both to the planet and for our people, I think is a unique and defining quality, and we need to find a way to harness that.
Speaker 2 [00:12:32] I have a bit more of a directed question related to businesses and the importance of ensuring that we can support employers in being able to find this talent, especially in the face of looming labour shortages. But how can businesses de-risk that move? Many employers, the ones that our team has spoken with, have mentioned that it’s just frankly, a little bit riskier going for an international student than a necessarily domestic student with the proper experience for a particular role. So how would you tackle that challenge?
Speaker 3 [00:13:04] Here, I think we need to see more collaboration at the community and, you know, at the provincial kind of. Municipal level. I mean, we know one of the barriers and we see this from the student surveys, as I mentioned early in our conversation, is businesses struggle. There’s a pause, you know, before they take on a student because they have to work through the barrage of additional layers. It’s not just, you know, the employment, kind of the labour standards pieces. It’s all of the immigration overlays that have an impact on their ability to take on international students. And we need to clear that pathway. We have regulated international student advisors ratios whose job it is to advise students and who operate within a professional framework under the new college that was established by RCC to be able to advise students, you know, on not only their study, but their post-graduation plans. We need to find ways to be able to connect businesses to those to those ratios who can, in fact, provide that advice. We have ratios in our education institutions. Many employers that we engage with aren’t even aware that these are resources that are present within their communities.
Speaker 1 [00:14:06] I suspect when history looks back at the first couple of decades of the century for Canada, one of the quiet successes will be what we’ve done with international students and our ability to attract over time, millions of international students from every corner of the world. But it’s interesting to hear you speak La Raza and realize that we got here. I’ll quit accidentally, but certainly there was no grand strategy that set us on this path. And maybe we have a moment to say, let’s build out our strategy so that as we attract millions more of the world’s best and brightest to continue to build Canada in the decades ahead, that we’re doing it a little more thoughtfully and strategically for the betterment not only of those students, but for all of Canada. Larissa, thank you for your leadership in getting us on that pathway, but also for being here on disruptors.
Speaker 3 [00:14:54] Thanks, John. Thanks, Theresa.
Speaker 1 [00:14:58] Coming up after the break, we’ll talk with a former international student who’s blazing a path for those following in her footsteps. So stay right there.
Speaker 2 [00:15:09] You are listening to Disruptors and RBC Podcast. I’m Theresa Do. I’d like to let you know about a new with the report from RBC Economics. It’s called Proof Point, and it provides original, timely economic insights from RBC’s economics and thought leadership team. Find out why future supply chain snarls won’t be enough to bring inflation down. Or learn why immigration and shrinking household sizes will help protect against a full blown housing crash. To learn more, visit RBC dot com slash thought leadership.
Speaker 1 [00:15:47] Those spots are long. I’m Nathan. Oh, and I was a lawyer, so she handled my application process. I give everything to her, and I bet, as I said, if you get an all English translations, I’ll make the weeks. But the hardest part was waiting because my other friends also came to Canada seven weeks before I applied. So it was just seven weeks of waiting, but for me it was like more than three months without delay and just got an email for biometric with the first confirmation to give you biometrics. And a second they called from the medical, which took a long time because after everything’s going to phone the check for that so that without knowing what’s going to happen next was really hard for me, to be honest, because you never know what is going to be right.
Speaker 2 [00:16:28] That was Sanjay Suresh Kumar, an international student from Sri Lanka who is studying at Ontario’s Sheridan College. Today. We’re talking about the promise and perils facing Canada’s international education system and how it can better deliver the workforce Canada will need in the decades to come. Our next guest knows firsthand some of the unique challenges of being an international student. Patches Lang is the founder and CEO of ICE and Power. It’s a Vancouver based job search platform and talent marketplace dedicated to helping international students build meaningful careers in Canada. Pat, welcome to Disruptors. Thank you so much for having me. So I’d love to start with your story, Pat. You moved to B.C. from Thailand in 2013, graduated from Simon Fraser University in 2018, and then launched Ice and Power a couple of years later. Why did you decide on Canada over, say, Australia or New Zealand when you made the decision to study abroad? That’s a common question that everybody asked me, like, why Canada? And my answer is Never been that exciting. I actually have a younger sister who came a year before for high school, and I just try to follow her. I know that Canada is safer than the states and that it is friendlier to immigrants. So that’s kind of the two main reasons that I chose Canada over other countries.
Speaker 1 [00:17:48] You did more than just choose Canada for education or for family reasons. You’ve chosen to build a future and build a business. And I wonder if you can explain a bit more to us about ice and power and how your platform works. You build it as Canada’s first talent recruitment platform designed for international students. So matching available jobs with candidates, that’s clearly a need. But how is ice and power making a difference?
Speaker 2 [00:18:12] So a bit of my story. I came here pretty young, so actually when I first came here, I didn’t really speak any English. I learned English back in Thailand, but mostly grandmas and reading and writing. But speaking is mostly picking up here. Job searching has been extremely hard. Living in a different country has already been very difficult, though I remember getting rejected from the minimum wage job. I wanted to work at a Thai restaurant and I got rejected because I didn’t know how to sell myself or I didn’t even have a resumé back then. Initially I thought it’s just about, oh, maybe international student just like myself, couldn’t write a good enough resumes and we don’t know how to start out. And that’s actually how I started this company. But now that I’ve been in it for the past couple of years now, I realize that it’s a lot more systemic. First of all, international students, of course, I think we don’t really have the right support system. Only everybody is so different. So if you are students come here for MBA versus if you’re someone who come here for bachelor’s degree like myself. So our needs are very different and the resources that are out there are very cookie cutter is like, hey, this is how you format your resumé, this is how you talk to an employer and this is where you find jobs. But there’s so much more unique stuff that you really had to go over, like the immigration process, the language, the cultural barriers that I mentioned earlier. There’s so many international students choosing Canada because of the friendly, friendlier immigration process. But the system that is in place today is really not scalable enough. I would say so. University rely heavily on international student tuition. Some of them even have, you know, over 90% in the national students. But if you add what type of career support do they have, they would say, well, they have maybe one or two career services professionals supporting thousands of international students, and each one of us needs a very different. What are some of those services that Ice and Power offers? Because you mentioned some of the challenges include the fact that existing solutions are very cookie cutter, whereas the experience of each individual is quite unique. So what is the personalization of each student our job candidate entail? We realize that from the get go. I myself came here as an international student. My finding team members also came here as international students, but very different journey. So we went back and we asked How south? What do we want as an international talent and B, walk it backwards. So one of the things that we offer our students creates an account with us. They will be able to tell us a bit more about who they are. So whether or not you are looking for a full time opportunity, if you have in the national experience what type of opportunities you’re looking for or where you’re located. So we add very detailed information. With that detailed information, we are able to personalize and automate resources that really match their needs and deliver to them when they need it. Because let’s be honest, in the national story, in the first year, all you care about is making new friends and integrate and settling down. If you’re only your fourth year of university, your needs are like, I needed to get a job right now and I need to figure out my work permit right now. And those type of resources are delivered to them right when they need it. And really speaking to them.
Speaker 1 [00:21:47] I’m curious what Canadian employers need to learn about international students, but also from international students that may be able to bring a unique experience to the table.
Speaker 2 [00:21:56] One of the things that I found surprising over the past couple of years is that a lot of employers still think that in the national stage in require sponsorship. Employers are coming to me and say, hey, I want to hire diverse candidates and I want to support newcomers and I want to hire immigrants. But there are three key areas said. They said to me, these might be a little bit of my hesitation. So first, there’s still language barriers. Second, it’s the work authorization. They don’t really know how long the student class in the country or if they need sponsorship or they can they apply for a job by themselves. And third is soft skills. Those are the three things that employers are saying to me. Now, if you can prove this, this would be a valuable key facts. I can help back up their decision of hiring international students. I think what employers need to know is that international students, they are brave enough to come to a different country and study in their second language, work in their second language. They have in the national experience much often in companies that is very big and very well-known because they need that experience in order to even back up their study application. And they are resilient. They have grit and moving to a different country. It is not easy. Some of them pay tuition by themselves, you know, and I don’t know if you know, but we pay three times the tuition that domestic candidates pay. Most people take a loan to be able to do so. They don’t take it themselves. Their family would. So there’s a lot of pressure on their students and there’s not a lot of support system for them right now. You mentioned that tuition is much higher for international students than it is for domestic students. In addition to them, in many cases, those with a study permit are also limited to the number of hours they can work off campus. And that makes it difficult to get the work experience that Canadian employers are looking for. How can Canada, in your view, make it easier for international students who want to live and work here while they continue their studies? Yeah, that’s a hot topic right now. I honestly think, you know, 20 hours a week is it’s really not enough for students to support themselves. A lot of international students want to build a good career here in Canada. And if they can only work 20 hours a week, a lot of jobs that are available at that stage are usually minimum wage job. So you work at restaurants or retail, those kind of experience, although it could be transferable to corporate jobs, but it’s not a corporate or professional job. Getting a co-op or an internship opportunity was very helpful. But I also could only work 20 hours a week as a full time student, and I was finding a part time job that is professional. So I created my own kind of part time job, did a lot of networking, reaching out to marketing agency. I reach out to companies I was not even hiring at the time, but created the opportunity for myself and that that’s really helped me get the first professional job, which then helped me again land a good solid internship. And then I love for a start to get a good, solid, full time job.
Speaker 1 [00:25:19] I’m wondering as we turn to close, if you can share some advice to anyone, especially those listening to us from far flung places today, what they should be thinking about when they think about studying in Canada.
Speaker 2 [00:25:31] I think, number one is that as a newcomer or as an international talent or candidate, nothing is going to be easy. You know, you really have to fight unfairly because how can you do it? Things that other people don’t do. A lot of Canadians and local candidates might have a lot more Canadian experience than you. So it’s always going to be competitive. So how can you be creative in the way that you find your own ways and finding your own ways doesn’t come naturally? You have to go out and talk to people. You have to go out and network and ask for help.
Speaker 1 [00:26:04] Maybe that’s a great message to wrap up on. Be the disruptor. Thank you so much for being on RBC Disruptors.
Speaker 2 [00:26:09] Thank you so much for having me.
Speaker 1 [00:26:13] Teresa. It’s really interesting to hear what Pat had to say about being an international student, and it got me thinking about some of my own experience living and working abroad, going back a bit in time, but getting to live and work in different parts of Asia and Africa where there was always interest in Canada. It’s a great destination for people from pretty much every part of the world, but it’s really only in recent years where huge numbers of people have seen Canada as an education destination or just an immigration destination. That’s pretty terrific for us as a country to have that point of entry or gateway, not just for people to come and learn here, but to hopefully to set down roots. And we’re seeing that in big numbers and in all the fields, whether it’s health care or engineering or finance or the sciences, all the fields where we need more people. But as we heard from Larissa as well, the competition is getting greater and greater. And Canada’s got to keep an eye on what other countries are doing, because what we did to get here probably isn’t going to be all that we need to do to move ahead.
Speaker 2 [00:27:17] I’m reflecting on the conversation a bit more broadly, and I really appreciated what Larissa said about community. You heard from Pat. The reason why she came to Canada is because her sister was here, right? It’s these informal ties that bind us. It’s these human relationships. We need to think about how we build that. And we sustain these mentorship programs, these communities that are beyond the learning and beyond the working that newcomers seek when they arrive here. And so these are the systems and pathways that we need to build as a country. And if we don’t end up doing that, then we’re just paying lip service to our brand as a multicultural, open, tolerant society. But we have the opportunity we have the opportunity to bring in to retain people with these new skills and different ways of thinking. And that’s buttressed by training in our schools and institutions to help us build the future we need and stay true to the country that we aim to be. That is all for now. Thank you. To our guests, Larisa Bezo and Pat Chaisang. Stay tuned in the weeks ahead. We’re working on a special series about Canada’s agricultural revolution and how technology and some smart thinking could help feed a growing world and do it sustainably. Until then, I’m Theresa Do.
Speaker 1 [00:28:34] And I’m John Stackhouse. This is Disruptors, an RBC podcast. Talk to you soon.
Speaker 2 [00:28:42] Disruptors, an RBC Podcast is created by the RBC Thought Leadership Group and does not constitute a recommendation for any organization, product or service. It’s produced and recorded by JAR Audio. For more disruptors content like or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and visit rbc dot com slash disruptors.
Jennifer Marron produces "Disruptors, an RBC podcast". Prior to joining RBC, Jennifer spent five years as Community Manager at MaRS Discovery District and cultivated a large network of industry leaders, entrepreneurs and partners to support the Canadian startup ecosystem. Her writing has appeared in The National Post, Financial Post, Techvibes, IT Business, CWTA Magazine and Procter & Gamble’s magazine, Rouge. Follow her on Twitter @J_Marron.
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