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Speaking at an infrastructure-funding press conference in Windsor on Monday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford expressed his concern about a shortage of workers, adding that he would press the federal government to boost immigration levels.Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is not just wrong in suggesting that prospective immigrants to his province are aiming to laze around on the dole.

He’s exactly wrong. The Premier’s statements are completely at odds with an unprecedented shift in the labour market, in which the most recently arrived workers with landed-immigrant status have seen the biggest gains in employment rates, now nearly 10 percentage points higher than prepandemic levels. And that trend is more pronounced in Ontario than for Canada as a whole.

Speaking at an infrastructure-funding press conference in Windsor on Monday, Mr. Ford expressed his concern about a shortage of workers, adding that he would press the federal government to boost immigration levels.

But he went on to add a caveat. “You come here like every other new Canadian has come here, you work your tail off. If you think you’re coming to collect the dole and sit around, not gonna happen,” he said. “Go somewhere else. You want to work, come here.”

Mr. Ford’s concerns are misplaced. Immigrants must have permanent residency status before becoming eligible for payments under Ontario’s social assistance program.

And it is precisely those newly minted permanent residents who have experienced a sharp increase in employment rates during the pandemic. As the chart below shows, workers who have held landed-immigrant status for five years or less have seen not just the biggest rebound in employment during the pandemic, but sharp increases in employment rates compared with prepandemic levels.

Among workers aged 15 or older, the employment rate for those who have had landed-immigrant status for five years or fewer rebounded to prepandemic levels last October, far faster than any other category of citizenship status. As of September, 2021, the seasonally unadjusted employment rate for this group had risen to 71.8 per cent.

That represents a remarkable surge of nearly 10 percentage points. University of Waterloo economics professor Mikal Skuterud said employment rates usually do not change so rapidly; a long-term change of a single percentage point would normally be significant. ”This is massive,” he said.

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What’s more, the gains by the most recent landed immigrants have resulted in that group leap-frogging Canadian-born workers. Before the pandemic, the employment rate for Canadian-born workers aged 15 and older, at 62.5 per cent, ran just ahead of that of workers with five years or less of landed-immigrant status, at 62.2 per cent.

That 0.3 percentage point gap has now reversed, and grown, with the employment rate for workers with five years or less of landed-immigrant status more than 10 percentage points higher than that of Canadian-born workers.

The same trend is evident among workers aged 15 or older who have held landed-immigrant status between five and 10 years. The employment rate for that group rebounded past prepandemic levels last month. Participation rates rose as well, and the absolute number of unemployed workers in this group has fallen markedly since the pandemic began.

Across Canada, the same pattern holds true, although the effect is not quite as pronounced.

Mr. Ford’s comments fly in the face of those data. The Premier’s office did not directly answer a question on what the basis is for Mr. Ford’s concern that new immigrants might choose not to work. Instead, spokesperson Ivana Yelich wrote in an e-mail that “... our province is open to anyone and everyone who wants to work hard, support their family and contribute to their community.”

Part of the steep rise in employment levels by more recent immigrants can be explained by demographics – that group skews younger. But as this second chart shows, the trend persists even when the data are limited to the core work force of those aged 25 to 54.

Ottawa’s policy choices on immigration have played a role as well. Prof. Skuterud says that immigration reforms in the early 2000s introduced a points system that placed much greater emphasis on employability. The result was that immigrants in the past 20 years have been better placed to compete in the job market relative to earlier cohorts.

Prof. Skuterud said the trends that have emerged during the pandemic are the reverse of the experience in previous recessions, when immigrant workers had the first and worst job losses, and the slowest recovery.

He points out that Ottawa dramatically curtailed immigration last year as part of the overall effort to limit border crossings. The number of new permanent residents fell by nearly half in 2020 compared with 2019. That decline has somewhat reversed this year, with the number of new permanent residents admitted between January and August equal to four-fifths of the total admitted during the same nine-month period in 2019.

Prof. Skuterud says the rebound in immigration threatens to stall the gains in employment rates that newer permanent residents have been making, and perhaps even reverse them. Beyond the sheer increase in immigration numbers, the federal government has also sharply reduced the minimum amount of points needed to qualify for landed-immigrant status as Ottawa seeks to boost the inflow of immigrants.

Together, those two factors threaten to create a new generation of immigrants that are less able to find employment easily. Even a tight labour market, Prof. Skuterud said, won’t be enough to keep some landed immigrants from floundering.

Tax and Spend examines the intricacies and oddities of taxation and government spending.

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