How the provincial summer jobs program harms international students and the job market
By Susie Ngo, April 11 2019 —
As spring enters full bloom and summer glistens on the horizon, many post-secondary students are turning their attention to a daunting task: Finding a job for the summer. For many, summer jobs are crucial to their academic and professional careers, whether through financial support, work experience or degree-related co-ops and internships.
The Summer Temporary Employment Program (STEP) is designed to help students find summer jobs. STEP is funded by the Alberta government and aims to “provide students with the opportunity to build meaningful work experience, increase their skills, gain workplace insight and help prepare them for the future.” It does this by providing wage subsidies to local employers, who then are able to hire one or more students from May to August. Though noble in its vision, the STEP program excludes a major cohort of students — international ones.
In 2016, international students made up over seven per cent of the student body at the University of Calgary and 14 per cent at the University of Alberta. For graduate students, that number rockets to 35 per cent. International students have long been treated as a cash cow for Canadian post-secondary institutions, often paying double or triple the tuition residents of Canada pay. The latest data from 2016 shows that foreign students brought at least $1.28 billion in revenue to Canadian schools.
The average cost of education paid by a Canadian or permanent resident undergraduate student ranges from $6,000 to $8,000, whereas the average for international students is close to $20,000. That number continues to increase. Yet, despite their greater tuition fees, international students are barred from applying for or being hired by STEP-generated jobs.
Supporters of STEP claim that the program is designed only for Canadians because it must protect the student job market from international competition and that it would be unwise to invest in hiring international students who would take their skills and experience back to their home countries. Why should the government subsidize the wages of students who won’t even stay to contribute their skills to the provincial or national economy?
But this line of thinking reflects the dangerous protectionism that we see in the United States. Limiting the STEP program to Canadian students for fear of over-competition from international students shows that rather than being based on merit or qualifications, employers must select applicants based on their nationality. International students who may possess much higher suitability for the position or skills that Canadians do not are denied the opportunity to contribute to the growth of economic sectors in Canada. I personally would not mind losing a job opportunity if I knew that the person being hired was more skilled, more equipped and a better fit for the job than I was.
No one is proposing to give all of the summer positions to international students. However, the fear that they will out-compete Canadian students for job opportunities simultaneously undermines Canadians’ ability to job search and compete and limits the pool of strong applicants for employers. This not only damages the reputation of Alberta — and Canada as a whole — to the international community but also sets up unnecessary blockades to the innovation and growth of our economy.