From Book Bags to Briefcase: International Student Transition to Employment in Canada
By Jennifer Browne and Sonja Knutson
“International education is a key driver of Canada’s future prosperity, particularly in the areas of innovation, trade, human capital development and the labor market.”
– Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, 2012.
A primary reason for countries to engage in international student recruitment is the direct contribution of billions of dollars spent by international students in schools and communities in which they choose to study and live. While this direct economic impact is important, equally important in Canada is the potential for international students to fill labour market gaps. The Higher Education Academy defines employability as, “the opportunities to develop knowledge, skills, experiences, behaviours, attributes, achievements and attitudes to enable graduates to make successful transitions and contributions; benefiting them, the economy and their communities.” Employability for international students encompasses this range of knowledge, skills and attitudes, overlaid by cross-cultural difference, with an overarching purpose of enabling graduates to remain in Canada and benefit the economy and their communities.
According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, Canada is the world’s seventh most popular destination for international students. Over 350,000 international students are studying in Canada, more than half of whom are enrolled in universities. International students, with local friends and networks generally well-developed, are a source of highly-skilled workers able to integrate relatively easily into the Canadian labour market and society. Canada’s immigrant-friendly policies allow students to work while studying and after graduation. Canadian universities have taken note of these policies and are developing creative and thoughtful programming focused on ensuring that international students have opportunities to learn about careers, both inside and outside the classroom.
The Canadian labour market forecasts reflect future shortages in professional and skilled trades that require highly qualified personnel, and there is concern that our ability to remain competitive in the new knowledge economy is at risk. Each province has its own particular context and is able to develop specific immigration streams tailored to region-based needs. The demographic challenges are keenly felt in smaller centres in particular. There is a growing intent by federal and provincial governments, and even by specific regions such as the four provinces of Atlantic Canada, to further refine immigration streams, programming and incentives to ensure international students smoothly transition from study to work, and, subsequently to permanent residency in regions outside of the large urban centres.
A majority of international students wish to stay in Canada and transition into the workforce. A recent survey of international students participating in programs offered by Memorial University’s Career Centre found 84% indicated they wished to remain in Canada. The University of Alberta found similar results in their International Student Barometer survey where 80% indicated they wished to stay post-graduation. Ensuring international students have access to programming and opportunities that improve their employability is a responsibility of post-secondary institutions, and most Canadian campuses have career advising, programming and experiential learning opportunities that are focused on international student employability.
At Memorial, a recent survey on where international students go for career support found that besides online job boards, family and friends, international students identified a strong propensity to lean on campus career centres, career advisors and supervisors. When asked what are the biggest challenges faced by international students finding employment in Canada, 82% of international students indicated minimal to no professional networks established in Canada, 52% indicated lack of work or volunteer experience and 41% identified language barriers. Memorial University, with its special obligation to the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, is fully engaged with supporting provincial population growth and labour market initiatives. Programs to develop career skills for international students encompass both direct teaching of basics (resume writing and interviewing) and networking practice, as well as experiential and subsidized work placements on-campus. Besides support for the career search, a second major initiative is ensuring international students, early in their academic careers, are encouraged to consider entrepreneurship. Information on how to set up a business is shared, and networking opportunities and mentorship with local entrepreneurs provided. These programs are well evaluated by student participants, and have high retention rates even though they are extracurricular programs. A sample of Memorial’s range of programs to support international student employability include:
Professional Skills Development Program (PSDP)
The national award-winning Professional Skills Development Program (PSDP) ─ which was recognized as a “best practice” in Supporting International Students on Campus: 17 High Impact Practices to Ensure Student Success, published by the Educational Advisory Board in 2014 ─ is an eight-week program focused on preparing international students for professional employment in the province and across the country. PSDP includes eight one-hour sessions (on topics such as communication, culture, volunteering), two networking events and a mandatory volunteering component. Since its inception in 2010 some 623 international students have participated.
Entrepreneurship Training Program (ETP)
Since 2012, Memorial has offered an innovative Entrepreneurship Training Program (ETP) for international graduate students that aims to develop both the entrepreneurial mindset as well as technical and managerial competencies necessary to create new ventures. The program is a combination of workshops, networking events, special presentations, one-on-one advising and mentorship.
International Student Work Experience Program (ISWEP)
The International Student Work Experience Program (ISWEP) is an on-campus part-time employment program for undergraduate international and English as Second Language students with a valid study permit. These positions are completed over one semester and can be 40 or 80 hours in length. Positions are available throughout campus with faculty and staff and provide career-related professional experiences. Students and employers complete a Learning and Reflection Agreement to encourage dialogue between student and employer, and to actively reflect on and identify the transferable skills and competencies they have gained as a result of the ISWEP experience.
A dedicated International Career Advisor position sees students one-on-one regarding their career development needs, facilitates ISWEP and the PSDP program, and is connected with many groups and resources internal and external to the university that support international student engagement and retention.
These examples from Memorial University are found in varying degrees across Canada, and yet retention of international students post-graduation remains difficult to both track and to evaluate. There is no pan-Canadian data on the influencers on international students’ decision to stay in Canada after they graduate, though the natural assumption is the availability of jobs. There is no data available on how many students transition successfully from studies to work and then to permanent residence, and there is no evaluation on how career counsellors can guide them efficiently.
The dialogue regarding international student employability and subsequent transition into the labour force is occurring worldwide. Canada is one of many countries developing strategies based on its own needs while globally there is increased dialogue, sharing and research focused on internationalization and employability. Staff in career centres and international offices on post-secondary campuses play a critical role assisting international students navigate the path to career success in Canada. Engaging internal and external partners, providing a variety of experiential opportunities to gain relevant experience and increase their professional network with strong advising and support from trained staff is key to attracting and keeping talented international students in Canada.
Jennifer Browne is the Associate Director of Student Life at Memorial University. She has worked in the area of career for over 15 years including leading the Memorial Career Centre for a decade. Browne is one of the founding organizers of the International Experiential Learning Institute held annually since 2013 and currently Chair of the Canadian Education and Research Institute in Counselling (CERIC).
Sonja Knutson is the Director of the Internationalization Office at Memorial University. She is a frequent presenter on the Canadian context of international education. Since 2006 she has been an instructor with the Queen’s University International Educators Training Program. She has served for six years on the Board of Directors of the Canadian Bureau for International Education, and is Chair (elect) with the NAFSA International Education Leadership Knowledge Community.
Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. International Education: A Key Driver of Canada’s Future Prosperity. 2012. www.international.gc.ca/education/assets/pdfs/ies_report_rapport_sei-eng.pdf
Higher Education Academy. “Framework for Embedding Employability in Higher Education.” Higher Education Academy, 2015.
Weir, D., Luther, W., Knutson, S., Odgers, T. (2016, November). Improving Employability Outcomes for International Students. PowerPoint presentation at the Canadian Bureau for International Education Annual Conference, Ottawa On.