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  • Writer's pictureDan Herman

We need more Canadian students abroad

Late last week news broke that the Canadian government was contemplating and/or planning to make cuts to the number of international youth that are permitted to come to Canada under youth-labour exchange agreements. The move is in response to tensions surrounding these programs that in 2012 saw 58,094 foreign youth come to Canada while only 17,731 Canadians went abroad. This imbalance is subsequently viewed as a growing factor in domestic youth unemployment.

While I’m certainly sympathetic to the challenges facing youth in Canada (see our recent report here), cutting back on reciprocal exchanges is not the way to solve the problem. In fact, doing so highlights the politicization of the issue rather than the attempt to figure out what the real problem is.

Is it problematic that 58,000 youth come to Canada? Or is problematic that only 17,000 Canadian youth go abroad? Assuming that these are truly reciprocal agreements, I’d argue it’s the latter given that Canada’s future prosperity is tied tightly to our ability to build alliances and business with growing emerging markets. Note that this evidently doesn’t condone the abuse of the program as described by some labour groups. The key is getting our youth to take advantage of the program as aggressively as others are. This article highlights the disparity between rates of Canadian youth taking advantage of the program versus those coming into Canada.

Why more Canadian youth don’t take advantage of the program is puzzling. I’m biased as I did so some 16 years ago, spending a year in Australia prior to beginning my studies at university. The experience whet my appetite for learning about the world. That appetite however seems to be missing from the majority of Canadian students. The Canadian Bureau of International Education has noted that just 3% of Canadian student go abroad annually as compared to 10% for American students, and 30% for German students.

If we want to tackle youth unemployment, especially for new graduates, part of the solution will be to increase the rates of those who go abroad in order to meet the demands of today’s labour market. In a recent project we completed for several public sector clients, we spoke to CEO’s of some of Canada’s largest companies. One of the common things we heard in our conversations was that “Canadian employees and management teams lack the international experience required to seize opportunities in emerging markets.” The competitiveness of their firms suffer as a result. Building that international experience should subsequently begin as early as possible, in particular as students navigate their post-secondary studies and their post-graduation skills development efforts.

So while it might make good political fodder to target incoming youth, we should really be thinking about a plan to send more Canadian youth out to get international experience. The cancellation/pause of Canada’s international youth internship program which sent new graduates abroad was, in my humble opinion, a grave loss to Canadian youth and, as our CEO interviews attest to, the future competitiveness of the Canadian economy. Reinstating a version of this program and sinking more dollars into helping Canadian students go abroad for study and work are necessary components of a better strategy to addressing short and long-term employment issues for Canadians and for building a far more competitive Canadian economy.

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