Attracting and Retaining International Students Through Canadian Work Experience

Huddle publishes commentaries from groups and individuals on important business issues facing the Maritimes. These commentaries do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Huddle.

Preparations are in their final stages for Fredericton to host the 2017 Canadian Chamber of Commerce annual general meeting and conference.

Conferences are big business. On average, one delegate of a national conference provides $324 of economic impact for everyday that they are in the city – money going to our local hotels, restaurants, local shops, taxis, tourist attractions and more. The Canadian chamber estimates that the economic impact on Fredericton over the course of the six days (including the preceding Canadian Chamber Executives of Canada conference) will be nearly $1 million. Beyond the direct economic impact, this conference is an opportunity for the region and the province to show what it has to offer to national business leaders and decision makers.

It is also a chance to influence national policy-making – with the national chamber and the federal government. The centrepiece of the conference is the policy debates, where resolutions submitted by local chambers from across the country will be debated by the delegates in attendance. The Fredericton chamber has submitted a resolution that, if adopted by the federal government, will give international students more options to gain work experience during their studies and increase the time that have post-graduation to establish a career in Canada – including access to the Canada Summer Jobs program. These changes will make it more likely that these students will connect with businesses and the city generally – ultimately putting down roots in our community. The full, detailed resolution can be found on our website at

Jurisdictions across Canada are searching for ways to attract and retain more international students. A significant impediment to these efforts are policies that make it more difficult for these students to obtain work experience while attending Canadian post-secondary institutions or immediately after graduation. These restrictions have both (a) legal ramifications: example: permanent residency / citizenship requirements; and (b) practical implications: example: connecting with the student’s host community, making post-graduation career contacts, and gaining work experience – which employers are increasingly demanding from graduates. The issue is particularly acute in Atlantic Canada, where retention rates hover around 40% for international students.

Immigration has been long been identified as a key component to present and future growth. This was borne out in the latest census data: Canada added approximately 1.7 million people between 2011 and 2016, with two-thirds of this increase attributable to immigration.

The timing of a renewed Canadian effort to become a destination of choice for international students may never be better. With nationalist sentiments emerging and anti-globalist governments assuming control in some of Canada’s top competitors for international students, we are in a position to capitalize on the increasingly attractive quality of Canadian post-secondary education. Post-secondary institutions have recognized this opportunity and are redoubling their efforts to attract more international students to their schools. The Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy states “International students in Canada provide immediate and significant economic benefits to Canadians in every region of the country.” The panel advocates for a doubling of the number of international students studying in Canada over the span of a decade, from just under 240,000 in 2011 to over 450,000 in 2022.

Global Affairs Canada estimates that international students spent $11.4 billion on tuition, accommodation and discretionary spending in 2014, creating almost 125,000 jobs across the country. At this time they represented about 9% of the college student population and 8.8% of the undergraduate student population in Canada – leaving room for significant growth.

That international students are allowed to work at all in the country is a relatively new development. Following a pilot program offering a work permit to international students at select institutions in Alberta, the Government of Canada formalized this work permit option in 2006. As a result, international students were allowed to work up to 20 hours per week while in-study and full-time during study breaks, such as winter or summer holidays. However, these rules only apply to full-time students; part-time international students are still ineligible to work in Canada.

The implications for business and the economy are clear. The country needs the next generation of consumers to sustain growth and the next generation of taxpayers to support our aging population. Businesses need skilled workers to innovate and grow. The 2015 Top 10 Barriers document reports that the persistent skills gap costs $24 billion per year in Ontario alone. Increasing the number of international students at Canadian institutions represents an opportunity to address all of these concerns, but the employment restrictions detailed above are a barrier to fully realizing Canada’s potential as a destination of choice.

Krista Ross is CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce. With more than 950 members, the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce is one of Atlantic Canada’s largest chambers of commerce. A dynamic business organization, the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce is actively engaged in policy development that affects the competitiveness of our members and of the Canadian business environment. It’s vision is Community Prosperity Through Business.