Express Entry: One year since FSWP candidates were invited

Kareem El-Assal
Published: December 21, 2021

The last time Federal Skilled Worker Program (FSWP) candidates were drawn from the Express Entry pool was on December 23, 2020.

Little did most of us know at the time it would mark the beginning of a temporary pause in Express Entry invitations to FSWP candidates.

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The FSWP has been Canada's leading pathway for economic class immigrants since it was launched in 1967. In 2008, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) complemented the FSWP by launching the Canadian Experience Class (CEC). The purpose of the CEC is to provide a dedicated immigration pathway to those with Canadian work experience (namely international students and temporary foreign workers). In 2013, IRCC introduced the Federal Skilled Trades Program (FSTP) to provide an immigration pathway for skilled trades workers.

In 2015, IRCC launched Express Entry to manage these three programs. Anyone that met the criteria of an Express Entry-managed program could create a profile and would receive a Comprehensive Ranking System (CRS) score based on human capital criteria such as their age, education, English and/or French language skills, work experience, Canadian experience, among other factors. Approximately every two weeks, IRCC would invite the highest scoring candidates to apply for Canadian permanent residence.

The rationale for Express Entry was it would allow IRCC to process applications more quickly (since they only needed to process those invited, rather than the previous model of reviewing every single application) and would give new immigrants a better shot to integrate into the Canadian economy (since IRCC was skimming the top to invite the highest scoring candidates).

Between 2015 and the start of the pandemic, FSWP candidates were the leading recipients of Express Entry invitations. In 2019, they received some 45 per cent of all invitations, followed by CEC candidates. This all came to a halt in 2021.

IRCC entered 2021 with a plan on how to achieve its Immigration Levels Plan target of landing 401,000 new permanent residents by the end of this year. The plan entailed transitioning a greater number of temporary residents living in Canada during the pandemic to permanent residence. The rationale for the plan was that amid COVID disruptions such as travel restrictions and other obstacles that may get in the way of overseas candidates completing the permanent residence process, focusing on transitioning those within Canada was the surest bet to achieving the 401,000 newcomer goal in 2021.

The plan entailed moving away from considering all candidates in Express Entry to primarily inviting CEC candidates for most of this year, including the historic February 13 draw that invited all 27,332 CEC candidates in the pool at the time (almost six-times more than the previous record for invitations in one draw). The plan also entailed launching a one-time special public policy enabling up to 90,000 essential workers and international graduates in Canada to apply for permanent residence.

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One is entitled to debate the merits of the decision to exclude FSWP candidates from Express Entry draws for one year and counting. In fact, we will have plenty of time to debate the merits of the decision as a number of developments continue to unfold, such as the global pandemic situation, IRCC's future policy decisions and operating capacity, Canada's labour market picture, and the economic integration of Express Entry immigrants. All this to say, we will likely need years before we can fully assess the ramifications of this decision.

Nonetheless, it is worth taking a look at the pros and cons of the decision based on the information we have available to us today.

Pros of the decision to exclude FSWP candidates

IRCC is within striking distance of achieving its newcomer target for this year, as it is now landing over 45,000 new permanent residents per month and has landed over 360,000 immigrants through the first eleven months of 2021. Hence, IRCC will argue the difficult decision to exclude FSWP candidates has nevertheless enabled it to land a higher level of permanent residence during a very challenging operating environment.

Another pro is that Statistics Canada research shows those with Canadian work experience tend to integrate well into the labour market once they gain permanent residence. In addition to having domestic work experience, they are able to improve their language skills and networks while in Canada as temporary residents which helps their post-landing employment prospects.

Third, Canada has been experiencing labour shortages throughout the pandemic and IRCC's focus on candidates in Canada has allowed the country to pursue a more targeted approach to addressing shortages, particularly in essential occupations. For instance, many of the essential workers who applied under IRCC's temporary public policy may not have otherwise had a chance to gain permanent residence had it not been for IRCC's decision to exclude FSWP candidates this year.

Cons of the decision to exclude FSWP candidates

On the other hand, one can argue IRCC was capable of achieving its 401,000 newcomer target while also inviting FSWP candidates at the same time. The reason for this is there is a lag of roughly one year of more, generally speaking, between when an FSWP candidate gets invited, and them physically arriving to Canada. Hence, IRCC could have begun to issue Express Entry invitations to FSWP candidates in the second half of the year while also landing as many in-Canada applicants as possible in fulfilment of its 2021 levels plan goal. In fact, an internal IRCC memo reveals this was an option under consideration by the department, but it is unknown why they did not end up pursuing this path.

Another con of the decision is it has impaired transparency and trust between FSWP candidates and IRCC. The Canadian government and IRCC pride themselves on being as open and transparent as possible, but they have not provided much in the way of communication to FSWP candidates about IRCC's Express Entry plans in 2021 and beyond. This is important because many FSWP candidates have entered the Express Entry pool in earnest this year waiting for an opportunity to be drawn, but have been shut out. In essence, IRCC is inviting them into the restaurant but will not serve them food. Perhaps a better approach would have been for IRCC to openly communicate its intentions so that FSWP candidates could explore alternative plans. The decision to exclude them may also have a negative impact on some candidates since language test scores are only valid for two years and Educational Competency Assessments (ECA) are valid for five years. In the grand scheme of things, retaking a language test or applying for another ECA is not the end of the world, but it would have been more considerate by IRCC to give FSWP candidates advanced notice so they could avoid potential inconveniences in their pursuit of Canadian permanent residence.

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A third con pertains to IRCC undermining the policy rationale for Express Entry in the first place. Upon Express Entry's launch in 2015, IRCC beamed with pride about the evidence-based approach used to inform the Comprehensive Ranking System (CRS). IRCC explained the CRS was shaped by many years of longitudinal data collected and analyzed by Statistics Canada on the labour market performance of immigrants. As such, the CRS score was designed to award candidates who are younger in age, with higher levels of education, work experience, language skills, Canadian experience, as well as who may have other advantages such as a Canadian job offer or siblings living in Canada.

However, this has all gone out the window with the decision to exclude FSWP candidates, since IRCC has only been inviting candidates eligible for the CEC as well as the Provincial Nominee Program (some PNP streams are aligned with Express Entry). The result has been plummeting CRS score requirements so that IRCC can achieve its 401,000 newcomer target. This nimble approach may be celebrated, but it may also come at a cost. That is, those with lower CRS scores that obtained permanent residence invitations in 2021 may end up having weaker labour market outcomes than candidates who would have otherwise received invitations under more normal circumstances (that is, being invited on the basis of having one of the highest CRS scores rather than on the basis of meeting CEC eligibility criteria).

IRCC has consistently argued that Express Entry is designed with the long-term in mind. Inviting candidates, according to IRCC, with the highest CRS scores is smart policy since their high human capital will allow them to adapt to the dynamic nature of the Canadian labour market. While this is an extreme example, it is illustrative of the choice IRCC has made: the department decided that it was more important to invite a CEC candidate with a CRS score of 75 (as in the February 13 draw) in order to achieve its 2021 levels goal than to invite an FSWP candidate with a CRS score of 470 (the rough cut-off requirement prior to this year).

An additional con that has been highlighted by IRCC itself is the decision to focus on candidates in Canada has exacerbated backlogs since IRCC has been processing the permanent residence applications of those overseas at a slower pace.

Looking ahead

Given the lack of communication by IRCC on its Express Entry plans, it is impossible for anyone to predict when it will resume invitations to FSWP candidates. However there are several things to keep in mind.

First, IRCC has also been excluding CEC candidates from draws since September so it can tackle its backlogs. The department has said it wants to cut Express Entry backlogs in half before it considers inviting FSWP, CEC, as well as Federal Skilled Trades Program candidates again. Based on its recent pace of application processing, IRCC could be in such position within the first half of 2022.

Eventually, IRCC will need to resume invitations to FSWP candidates given how prominent of a source of talent they are. As noted, they made up 45 per cent of invited candidates in 2019 and in recent months have comprised some 85 per cent of all candidates in the Express Entry pool. Before long, IRCC may run out of enough CEC candidates to invite and may have perhaps already reached that point.

Another major consideration is IRCC plays a key role in supporting Canada's economic development. The department facilitates the arrival of permanent residents from abroad which supports Canada's population, labour force, and economic growth. However the pandemic has disrupted overseas arrivals and this has contributed to Canada's weakest population growth in over 100 years. In addition, the country is dealing with some of the highest job vacancy levels on record for a variety of reasons including the lack of new workers coming from abroad. As such, resuming FSWP draws will be key to supporting Canada's economic growth objectives.

Finally, whereas it made sense to exclude FSWP candidates from draws while Canada had stricter travel restrictions in place, it has made less sense to exclude them since Canada lifted travel restrictions on all Confirmation of Permanent Residence (COPR) holders in June. Although COVID case counts are on the rise globally, there is nothing in the way of Canadian government travel restrictions currently preventing FSWP candidates with COPRs from entering Canada. And as previously mentioned, it takes a good one year on average from the time an FSWP gets an invite to them coming to Canada, so pandemic volatility should not be the main reason for continuing to hold off from FSWP invitations since none of us know what the world has in store for us one year or so from now.

All this to say, there appears to be a strong case for IRCC to resume invitations to FSWP candidates in 2022.

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