Kenya Dames smiles

Bahamian Kenya Dames went to work for the federal government right after graduating from Mount Saint Vincent University. A new study suggests that she will prosper if she becomes a permanent resident. (Photo: Kelly Toughill)

Work experience — not education – dictates the professional success of international students who become permanent residents of Canada.

That’s the conclusion of a new study that compares the long-term income of international students with the long-term income of foreign-educated immigrants and Canadian-born university graduates. The Statistics Canada study found that the wage gap of international graduates and Canadian-born graduates disappears when pre-immigration work experience is similar.

“This is new and intriguing,” said Leah Nord, chair of the immigration advisory committee of the Canadian Bureau of International Education. “But it raises many questions. Does this show the importance of internships and co-op placements and paid work opportunities (at school)? Or is this about what happens when someone has a Post-Graduation Work Permit?”

Previous studies have found that international students earn significantly less than Canadian-born students with similar education even many years after graduation. That finding led to changes in immigration policy that made it harder for students to immigrate to Canada.

The new study shows that the wage gap can be traced to work experience before a graduate becomes a permanent resident. When the researchers compared the earnings of international students whose work experience was similar to Canadian students, they found that both groups had almost identical long-term incomes.

“The results suggest that the key factor differentiating the post-immigration earnings of (Canadian-educated) immigrants from the earnings of the Canadian-born population and (foreign-educated) immigrants is whether international students held a well-paid job in Canada before becoming permanent residents,” reads International Students, Immigration and Earnings Growth: The Effect of a Pre-immigration Canadian University Education.

The key factor is not the amount of work, but the wages paid. The higher the income before immigration, the more likely an international student’s income will match Canadian citizens and permanent residents after immigration. And more education doesn’t help.

“An extra year of Canadian work or education experience before immigration made little difference to post-immigration earnings for (Canadian-educated) immigrants. These results may suggest that what matters to (Canadian-educated) immigrants is not the length of Canadian work or study experience, but the realized market value of this experience, as indicated by the earnings level before immigration.”

The researchers could not determine if in-school work opportunities such as paid internships and co-op placements had a different impact than jobs held after graduation.

There is a trend in higher-education toward degree programs that include paid co-op placements for students. Many Canadian universities have co-op degree programs, and some provinces provide extra funding and incentive for programs that include paid co-op placements, internships or practicums.

Nord said that the study also reinforces the need to help students get “soft skills” such as how to network, how to approach employers and how to present themselves in the workplace. She cited the Stay Nova Scotia program as a national example of how to help international students succeed.

“The whole work experience piece is important for anybody,” she said.

“But very few people can walk out of school and get one of these higher-paid jobs immediately.”

Researchers Feng Hou and Yuqian Lu tracked the income of two groups of former international students between the ages of 25 and 34. The first group become permanent residents in 1991. The second group became permanent residents in 2006. Earlier analysis of the two groups revealed that in the first year after becoming permanent residents, international students earn as much as 60 percent less than Canadians with similar education and background. The wage gap narrows over time, but is still significant 10 years after a student has become a permanent resident. The new study shows that the wage gap can be traced to early work experience.

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