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The international student wage gap: U of T voices on difficulties finding Canadian employment

Statistics Canada: up to 20 per cent difference in international, domestic graduate earnings
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ANUSHKA SAINI/THE VARSITY
ANUSHKA SAINI/THE VARSITY

A recent study by Statistics Canada has found that former international students earned 20 per cent less than their domestic counterparts in the first year after graduation and nine per cent less five years after graduation.

The study noted that this could be because international students struggle to obtain work experience in Canada prior to graduation. The study considered graduates’ pre-graduation work experience — including number of years worked and total earnings — and determined that it accounted for most of the post-graduation earnings disadvantage.

International at U of T

U of T has a prominent international student body, with about one in four U of T students being an international student. However, the university does not make a distinction between former international and former domestic students in its postgraduate employment-related surveys.

The report’s findings have come to light in a period when international students are more important than ever to Canadian postsecondary institutions. In particular, their tuition fees cross-subsidize domestic enrolment. At U of T, 30 per cent of the university’s 2019–2020 revenue came from international tuition

Aside from financial contributions, international students enrich the learning environment of institutions and communities socially and culturally while supporting the labour force in countries like Canada that face and will face skill and labour shortages.

A study in success

The study, conducted in collaboration with Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, analyzed earnings trajectories of international and domestic students who graduated from 2010–2012. Information was collected based on administrative tax data and the Postsecondary Student Information System.

According to the study, language proficiency, cultural differences, fields of study, academic performance, employers’ reluctance to hire applicants with temporary residency status, and employer discrimination are other possible explanations that contribute to international students’ labour market outcomes. However, work experience was found to be the most important factor.

The disadvantage in work experience outweighed the advantages of higher levels of education and specialization, even in fields associated with higher earnings. Inequity was found to be more pronounced among holders of graduate degrees, compared to graduates with lower levels of education. However, the earning gap was smaller for STEM graduates compared to graduates in business and arts.

International undergraduates had an average 1.3 years of pre-graduation work experience, compared to 6.2 for students who were Canadian citizens. These figures were 1.4 and 8.1 years, respectively, for master’s degree holders and 4.1 and 8.3 years, respectively, for doctorate holders.

Missed connections

The study also suggests that international students in the early years of their postsecondary studies may not have spent enough time in Canada to fully familiarize themselves with the Canadian workplace culture and build local networks. 

Christopher Fuchs, a 2020 Rotman Master of Financial Risk Management graduate, spoke to The Varsity about the additional challenge of building employment-related connections in Canada. Originally from Germany, Fuchs acknowledged the importance of networking as part of North American culture. 

“As a Canadian, you have advantages because you probably have [connections] through your family and friends,” Fuchs explained. “[As an employer], you are more inclined to hire someone you really know for a couple of years, or [if] you know their family.”

Paperwork problems

International students are legally allowed to work in Canada under the conditions that they are enrolled full time in a Designated Learning Institution and obtain a Social Insurance Number (SIN). They cannot work over 20 hours a week during regular academic sessions, with the exception of scheduled academic breaks, in which they can work full time.

Although they can transition to a Post Graduation Work Permit after graduation, international status can make it difficult for students to take advantage of the same employment opportunities domestic students have.

Christian Gonzalo Paez Diaz, a 2020 U of T architecture and visual studies graduate, spoke to The Varsity about searching for Canadian employment as a student from Ecuador. “Many of the opportunities… require people to be Canadian citizens,” Paez said. “There’s a problem of… accessibility because a lot of jobs require people with cars and with licenses.”

Rebekah Robinson, a fourth-year history and Russian language literature studies student from the United States found that it’s easier to navigate the job market as an international student by looking for opportunities on campus. 

She discussed with The Varsity how the Career & Co-Curricular Learning Network (CLNx) is the easiest route to find opportunities. CLNx is U of T’s search engine for career opportunities on and off campus. 

“I was really thankful that I did go ahead and get the SIN… as soon as possible because that became really important,” she added. “Especially as I started to look for other jobs, I didn’t have that as a headache to worry about.”