International students face workforce challenges: study

SAINT JOHN • Only 37 per cent of surveyed international students in New Brunswick work in their chosen fields despite 80 per cent of them having post-secondary education before arriving in the province, according to a new study.

The report, called International Students' Transition to Employment, also revealed 51 per cent of the 200 surveyed international students also had at least five years of work experience before arriving in Canada.

The results of the study were released by the Saint John Newcomers Centre and the New Brunswick Multicultural Council at a Thursday press conference. In addition to surveying international students from countries like Nigeria, India and China, the study also contains data from surveys and interviews of 36 local employers, as well as more than 45 stakeholder partners and educational institutions from across New Brunswick.

Overall, the study highlights both hurdles and opportunities that international students face while transitioning into the workforce. Some of the most common challenges identified by surveyed international students were around "employment, immigration and finance;" however, other challenges, like "a sense of belonging and a struggle to find networking opportunities," were also identified.

"If the opportunity is out there, we need to connect (international students) to those opportunities, so that they can continue with providing economic benefit and providing their talent to the employers in New Brunswick who are struggling with the lowest unemployment rate in recent history...." said Mohamed Bagha, managing director of the Saint John Newcomers Centre, after Thursday's press conference.

"We need to study more on this area, but I absolutely think that there is an opportunity that we are not fully optimizing here."

The study also revealed that 81 percent of surveyed international students showed an interest in settling down in New Brunswick, while 94 percent expressed an interest in becoming permanent residents of Canada. While the report highlighted various factors that make the province an attraction for international students, employment was ranked as the primary reason to leave New Brunswick by 87 percent of the students.

From the employer standpoint, 64 per cent of surveyed employers in the study said they feel "international students could be missing some of the essential skills to work and succeed in New Brunswick."

"Students self-reporting suggests relatively high familiarity with the Canadian work culture," the report continued. "And yet the employers cited this as a challenge."

A total of 71 per cent of the surveyed employers said they have hired international students, with 56 per cent of them facing challenges. Still, all the surveyed employers said they're open to hiring international students in the future, the report stated.

Maura McKinnon, interim executive director of the New Brunswick Multicultural Council, said, "We believe that the role of international students for the long-term viability and sustainability in the province is really critical."

She explained that the province's population is rapidly aging, impacting the province's available workforce.

McKinnon said employment opportunities are the major reason why many students want to stay in the province and also why many want to leave due to having difficulty getting employed.

"So when we look to the future and the fact that New Brunswick is going to have a 120,000 vacancies over the next 10 years, we really need to look at how do we ensure that our international students are staying in the province," she said.

Some recommendations derived from the study include developing programs to provide international students with work-ready skills, creating tools and awareness for both employers and students around "cultural challenges and opportunities," and ensuring regular activities for international students to strengthen their networks and community engagement skills, among others.

Bagha said there are a lot of opportunities out there, and with the help of this assessment, all the stakeholders, governments and community organizations should design programs and work together to ease the process for students to settle in. Giving international students a sense of belonging by designing activities and providing guidance to secure employment while they are enrolled in school will help retain them in the province, he added.

He said simplifying concepts like immigration, connecting students to employers and networking will also support them.

"Personally I say, people come to make a better life, it's either a job, it's either education, people stay because of their family... but people really call this their community if they get the opportunity to make change in the community.

"So let's create that environment."

Rhythm Rathi, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal