International Students? Or People of the World.

By Joe Baker, Tourism HR Canada Board of Directors

What gives me enough expertise to reflect on the lived experience and value of international students in Canada? I spent nearly 15 years working in Canadian higher education at a critical time. A time when domestic interest in tourism and hospitality programming began to fade and enrolment from international students gradually, and then sharply, offset the domestic drop.

Much has been in the news recently about these students. I thought a little level setting may be of value.  

The Canadian Bureau of International Education reported that Canada was home to 621,565 international students in 2021. It also reported an increase in the international student population of 135% from 2010 to 2020, with 60% of international students planning to apply for permanent residency and 96% of international students saying they recommend Canada as a study destination.

The Economic impact of international education in Canada 2017 – 2018 study by Global Affairs Canada estimated that in 2017 and 2018, respectively, international students in Canada spent a staggering $18.4 billion and $22.3 billion on tuition, accommodation, and discretionary spending.

If context is needed here, according to Statistics Canada, in 2021 there were 367,684 live births in Canada.

This Just In

Earlier this month, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship announced the temporary lifting of the 20-hour-per-week cap on the number of hours that eligible international post-secondary students are allowed to work off-campus while class is in session.

What does that mean? From November 15, 2022, until December 31, 2023, international students who are in Canada and who have off-campus work authorization on their study permit will not be restricted by the 20-hour-per-week rule.

This was a move designed to alleviate pressure in the labour market and was a significant win for those hardworking advocacy organizations from our sector who are doing all they can to help tourism and hospitality move beyond being the hardest-hit industry towards realizing our growth potential. These associations should be applauded.

I have written and spoken at length on the value of international students to our industry. From the Tourism HR Canada article Tapping the Tourism Talent Pipeline, to the International Students: Canada’s Emerging Tourism Talent talk I gave at the 2020 Tourism Industry Association of Canada Congress. These are resources worth revisiting if you are a business owner or operator within Canada’s tourism and hospitality industry trying to attract these students to your workplace.

So Now What?

There is a uniqueness in this moment that warrants our focus and attention. A fact that some may find difficult to immediately accept. And some vital nuance that needs to be considered. While these amendments to policy are promising, do not expect these international students to suddenly come flooding through the doors of your businesses responding to your Help Wanted signs.

Why? Because they still have a choice. In fact they have more choices in 2022 than they may have ever had before. What choice? They get to decide where to work. They get to choose their industry, their employer, their hours, their pay, and most importantly their workplace culture. And other industries know this too. So what are we going to do about it?

Our Path Forward

The challenges we describe as a labour shortage are so much more. And they extend so much further beyond our country and our sector. To characterize this issue as labour supply vs demand is simply short-sighted and an oversimplification. We are in the middle of a global shift in priorities. An international change in consciousness. A generational scuffle that was largely predictable. One that has repeated over the decades and will repeat again as those in organizational power fail to recognize the value of those who power their organizations. Call this the values revolution of our lifetime.

You see, international students are more than just their numbers. While they may be 600,000 strong and they may now be able to work more than 20 hours-per-week, they are something so much more prevailing and precious. They are surely greater than the sum of their individual parts. They are not commodities. They do not see themselves as international students. And they shouldn’t have to. Want to know who they are?

They are people. In fact, they are people of the world.

They have left the comfort of home. They have come to a foreign country. Our country. They have learned a foreign language. Our language. They have invested their money in our economy. In many cases, money they had to borrow. Money that will set their families back for generations. To the magnitude of 10x what our fading domestic population pays for the same educational experience.

They are struggling to find affordable housing. They are struggling to afford the necessities of life. They are struggling to learn our culture and our language. They are struggling to be students actively engaged in one of the most challenging and rewarding times of their lives. Learning. Growing. Self-actualization.  

And they are working while managing all of this. They always have been. Because they are resilient and persistent. Many have been working well beyond the 20 hours-per-week they were previously legally entitled to. They found the cracks in our system. Why? Because they don’t have a choice on this one. Because that hard-earned money pays for their experience in Canada. And in fact, many remarkably manage to send money back home.

They are relentless. They are impressive. They are our future. They are the future.   

The questions we as Canada’s tourism and hospitality industry should be asking ourselves on repeat until we have figured it out are these: What can we do to create intentional workplace culture that attracts these people of the world? And once they are here, what can we do to keep them? How can we embody all that’s great about our industry for them?

Attract them like they are global guests. Welcome them as weary travellers. Demonstrate that we see them. That we hear them. And above all else, show them that they belong. Here. With us. As part of our community. As a member of Canada’s tourism sector. Leveraging their experience and talents. Technical skills and socioemotional skills. Show them that they matter. And that we are here to help them succeed. Not the other way around.   

Joe Baker is a passionate leader within Canada’s tourism, hospitality and education sectors and a vocal advocate for a resilient, inclusive, future-forward industry. He is CEO of Joe Baker & Co., a human capital consultancy focused on strengthening hospitality and tourism organizations and people. Baker was dean at Centennial College’s School of Hospitality, Tourism and Culinary Arts where he led the most significant transformation in the school’s over 50-year history. He serves on the board of directors at Tourism HR Canada and Tourism Industry Association of Ontario.

Joe can be found everywhere @thejoebaker.

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