12/16/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 02/14/2015 05:59 EST

High-skilled foreign workers could be sideswiped under express entry

Some employers fear Americans working in Canada through the North American Free Trade Agreement, foreign nationals who have transferred to a Canadian branch and international youth working in Canada could be sideswiped by rules under the new express entry system that starts Jan. 1.

New regulations suggest employers who want to offer permanent jobs to high-skilled temporary foreign workers who are already working here will not only have to ask them to apply for permanent residency under express entry, they will also have to prove they made every effort to hire a Canadian first.

Many employers are currently allowed to hire foreign nationals on a temporary basis through various international mobility programs without needing a labour market impact assessment or LMIA, a document that looks at whether there are qualified Canadians to fill an employer's needs.

Sarah Anson-Cartwright, the director of skills policy at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce — one of nine groups the government has been consulting on express entry since 2013 — said she only learned of the new rules during a meeting with immigration officials at the end of November.

"We weren't aware that a labour market impact assessment was going to be required for virtually every candidate to be eligible to apply for permanent residency, but that's the new scenario," she said.

Under the new express entry points system revealed earlier this month, high-skilled immigrants who receive a permanent job offer backed by a positive LMIA will be among the first to receive an offer to apply for permanent residency.

Mark Holthe, a partner at the immigration law firm of Holthe Tillman, said the new regulations also took him by surprise.

Holthe, who is based in Calgary where businesses have felt the impact of the overhaul to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, said the new rules will come as an added burden for employers trying to hire and retain high-skilled workers.

"When we're competing for 'the best and the brightest,' as the government says, I'm just not so sure how attractive that kind of a model will be," he said.

Holthe said "the uncertainty" surrounding express entry has employers feeling anxious: "Right now the employers are still trying to figure out what they are supposed to do."

List of 50 occupations 'unnecessary'

The federal government has also decided to abandon a list of 50 occupations it was using to recruit high-skilled immigrants in favour of letting employers decide what jobs need filling.

As CBC News reported, last May the government more than doubled the number of professions skilled immigrants could apply for under the federal skilled worker program​ in preparation for the launch of express entry.

The list, which included doctors, registered nurses, engineers and accountants, surprised CBC News readers, who said they couldn't understand how employers were unable to find Canadians to fill jobs in any of those high-skilled occupations.

Now, seven months later, the government says the list of 50 occupations is no longer necessary.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Citizenship and Immigration said the list was put in place "to better align programs with labour market needs."

"The reforms to the economic immigration system and the introduction of express entry have rendered the occupation list approach unnecessary," Sonia Lesange told CBC News in an email.

This will allow the federal government "to be more nimble," Lesange said, "but also give employers and provinces the ability to play a greater role in the immigration system, making it faster and more flexible for all."

Anson-Carwright from the Chamber of Commerce said it makes sense for employers not to be tied to a predetermined list.

"For them to go through those efforts to fill a position would suggest it's a position they really need filled and it is in demand for them in that circumstance."

Six months earlier, a spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Chris Alexander told CBC News the list comprised "occupations that were found to be in demand nationally or regionally, based on recent labour market data from Employment and Social Development Canada and input from provinces and territories on regional labour market needs."

Employment Minister Jason Kenney has on more than one occasion conceded there have been gaps in Canada's efforts to collect that labour market information, and has said steps have been taken to address the problem.