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The Black Hole

Brain gain: keeping international scientists in Canada, part II

BY SONJA B. | JAN 27 2014

Following from last week’s post containing an overview of different pathways to immigration in Canada, today’s entry by guest blogger Sonja B. will focus on specific considerations relevant to the Canadian Experience Class.

This is Part 2 of a two-part series on immigration issues relevant to international trainees in science. I hope readers will find this a useful springboard for further discussion and share their thoughts and experiences with us in the comments section. This series of blog posts should not be considered legal advice. Rather, the intention is to create a framework to facilitate the sharing of ideas and experiences. We will attempt to link to official sources wherever appropriate, encourage our commenters to do the same, and we will remind readers to consult the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website as the only authoritative and up-to-date source of information.

The Canadian Experience Class (CEC) stream is a popular choice for skilled workers hoping to immigrate to Canada. Because applying to the program doesn’t require a permanent job offer (increasingly rare in today’s economic climate), the CEC is especially attractive to recent university graduates working in temporary positions or on contracts. A full list of requirements to apply to the program is available on the CIC website; some of these are discussed in detail below.

The major requirement for applying to the CEC is possession of at least 12 months of full-time (defined as over 30 hours/week) paid work experience in a skilled occupation in Canada. Skilled occupations are defined as those falling within the National Occupation Classification skill types 0, A or B (with some exceptions). Of note, the aforementioned work experience cannot be acquired on a student work permit (co-op, on-campus or off-campus).

In practice, most international students hoping to immigrate to Canada through the CEC would need to work for a year following graduation in a skilled occupation (not necessarily in their field of study) to meet the work experience requirement. In my personal experience, I worked in two “skilled” jobs for eight months each as a co-op student; however, I couldn’t use this experience to qualify for the CEC. However, the contacts I made while enrolled in the co-op program were instrumental to helping me find a job after graduation, which in turn made me eligible to apply for permanent residency through this program.

One important wrinkle to take into consideration when applying through the CEC is deciding which NOC code best fits one’s job description; a non-trivial endeavor, as many job titles don’t readily translate to NOC codes. Postdocs in particular have faced uncertainty over whether to use the generic NOC code for postdoctoral fellow (4011, “University professors and lecturers” including postdocs), the description of which emphasizes teaching responsibilities, or to pick a code that better reflects the discipline they’re conducting research in (e.g. 2121, “Biologists and related scientists”). Anecdotal examples exist of people achieving successful outcomes with either approach; it’s currently unclear what criteria one would need to evaluate in order to decide which code to use.

To provide proof of qualifying work experience, an applicant needs to submit a reference letter from their employer(s) detailing their job responsibilities and duties, NOC code, salary, hours of work per week and other information (Document Checklist, item 10). Applicants would be well advised to ensure their employers have ready access to all the required information (one’s immediate supervisor may not necessarily be familiar with the NOC classification system, for instance). The reference letter is also an opportunity to provide an explanation for any discrepancies, for example between one’s official job title and the NOC code used, or one’s salary and the average salary for that NOC code.

In my personal experience, proving that my employment qualified as “skilled” work experience for the purposes of the CEC was a source of much anxiety. My official job title, “Research Student” implied that I was a student, even though I was a full-time employee, held a post-graduation work permit and was not enrolled in any educational institution. I was concerned that my job title would negatively impact my application, as work experience gained on a student work permit expressly cannot be used to qualify for the CEC.

In the end, my supervisor’s reference letter described in detail the ways in which the job duties I actually performed were consistent with the NOC code I used (2221, “Biological technician”), clarified that I was a full-time employee and not a student (despite my job title), and explained that my salary – while far below the national average for the NOC code I used – was consistent with my experience, having just graduated with a BSc degree. Ultimately, my application was approved.

Finally, another potential source of uncertainty for postdocs is the requirement to submit T4 information slips or other supporting documentation for the period of qualifying work experience (Document Checklist, item 10). Many postdocs are paid on a T4A form, which can also be used to disclose income derived from self-employment. As work experience gained while self-employed cannot be used to qualify for the CEC, it would seem prudent to provide a clarification of the employer-employee relationship if a T4A form is used as proof of qualifying work experience. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some postdocs paid on a T4A have been rejected, whereas others’ applications have been successful. This specific issue has not been brought up on the CIC Help Centre, and official clarification would be welcome.


We hope that readers will find this series of posts a useful springboard for further discussion. We hope that the comments section will stimulate exchanges of stories, experiences and insights by international scholars working in Canadian science labs to help each other move through the sometimes arduous but potentially very rewarding process of immigrating to Canada.

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  1. Camilo / January 31, 2014 at 14:52


    Thanks for the post. Straightforward and informative. The international student community is surely grateful.

    I just wanted to contribute with some small details based on personal experience as well as on the experience of many international friends of mine, mostly students (about 10 from all around the world):

    – The FSW stream is a bit clotted at the moment. With the changes they introduced in 2011 and the CIC budget reductions both good and bad things have happened to the process. So thank you for opening up the discussion about the CEC stream. I’m sure many international students will be thinking about that in the future if they wish to apply.

    – International Centres at Universities are now refraining from providing immigration information. They used to do it (i.e. hold information sessions, have meetings where they could teach you how to fill the form, etc.), but with the changes CIC introduced in the legislation in 2012 all those responsibilities now go to an immigration lawyer. It is illegal to provide immigration info without a certification, and many centres simply don’t have the money to get this covered.

    – Following the comment in the last post says (I agree it was a little cynical), immigration processes are complicated but they are understandable if you spent your time on it, and I’m sure most graduate students can. Experience with other immigration processes may facilitate interpreting CIC requirements. In my personal experience, Canadian immigration is one of the most straight-forward processes.

    – Processing times vary widely across nationalities. It is difficult to make generalizations on the basis of student status (PhD, Graduate), even though I understand that is the intention of the article. So, for what is worth, I think the times quoted in the article are a bit short, and probably apply to cases where immigration agreements exist, specially US, Europe, and Australia (let’s call these U-E-A countries, no double meaning intended). Here are some of my own estimates:

    – PNP through FSW with U-E-A passport = 1 year (or less); other passports = 1.5 to 2 years
    (PNP processing times not accounted for)

    – FSW on own = 2 years minimum (U-E-A), max 3-4 years (non-U-E-A); 5 years in some exceptional cases

    – Changes of address, family situation, etc, need to be accounted for. Expect delays of 6 months or more for some of these.

    Thank you again! Hope this helps. And, welcome to Canada indeed!


  2. SC / January 31, 2014 at 21:18

    Great article and I think it would be a big help to international students hoping to find a permanent home in Canada.
    I would just like to mention that provincial nominee programs are another important stream too.
    Here is a Facebook group for those seeking PNP in Alberta:
    Hope this helps and good luck to everyone!