International students breathe easier after Canada extends work permits amid COVID-19

Nana Sakyi, an international student from Ghana who recently completed a master's degree at U of T, says changes to Canada's post-graduation work permit policy help offset the challenge of finding a job during COVID-19 (photo courtesy of Nana Sakyi)

When Ontario implemented its first lockdown to control the spread of COVID-19 last spring, Nana Sakyi felt the pressure of a ticking clock.

In addition to the health risks posed by the coronavirus, Sakyi – like many students graduating from the University of Toronto and other institutions – faced an uncertain job market and worried about her financial security.

As an international student, she also grappled with the possibility that her work permit would run out before she found employment, putting her immigration status at risk.

“If I didn’t get the work experience I needed to apply for permanent residence, I would have no choice but to leave the country,” said Sakyi, who hails from Ghana and has a master’s degree in economics. 

In an effort to ease the strain on international students such as Sakyi who are graduating from post-secondary institutions amid the pandemic, the federal government recently announced a plan that will give them more time to find work. Beginning Jan. 27, foreign nationals in Canada with an expired or soon-to-be-expired post-graduation work permit can apply for an 18-month extension.

The policy seeks to help foreign nationals who are currently in Canada meet the requisite work hours to be eligible to apply for permanent residence.

“The work permit extension gives international graduates another year and a half to contribute to the Canadian workforce. That’s a huge benefit to Canada and the individual students who wish to take it up,” said Katherine Beaumont, senior director of global learning opportunities and international student success at U of T’s Centre for International Experience (CIE).

Beaumont added that the centre plans to make more international students aware of the new policy through alumni newsletters and the university’s career development resources. In response to a growing international student population and an increased need for guidance and advice on the documentation required to be an international student in Canada, U of T has increased the number of certificated international student immigration advisers based at CIE.  As a result, CIE has been able to increase immigration advising to students by a factor of four since the pandemic began – all while adding new ways to serve students, including online and phone appointments, webinars and drop-ins.

As for Sakyi, she arrived in Canada in 2014 with the goal of becoming an economist. She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia and found a job in 2018 while on a three-year post-graduation work permit. But she decided to pursue her master’s at U of T the following year, figuring a second degree would help her snag a better full-time position – even if it meant her permit would be close to expiring by the time she graduated from U of T in the spring of 2020.

Then the pandemic hit.

“I was desperate and posting on Facebook groups looking for work,” Sakyi said. “Trying to find a job was almost impossible.”

She needed just three more months of relevant work experience to qualify for a permanent residence application. Despite the uncertainty, Sakyi tried to stay positive and make the most of her situation.

She woke up every day at 6:30 a.m., did a Pilates workout and spent the bulk of the day either searching for jobs or acquiring new skills to make herself a more desirable candidate. She learned how to use Tableau, a data visualization software, as well as the programming language SQL.

In the evenings, Sakyi escaped into the universe of Haikyu!!, a Japanese anime series about a boy determined to become a volleyball player that brought back fond memories of her days as a high school volleyball player in Bogoso, Ghana.

Now, with the new government policy on work permits, Sakyi said she can finally breathe a sigh of relief.

She’s not alone.

“A lot of international students were very, very happy about this policy because this gives them the time to work towards starting the permanent residence process,” said Pooja Gupta, who earned her engineering master’s degree last year from U of T’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering and serves as president of the school’s International Students’ Council.

“Canada’s immigration policies are what gives the country an edge in terms of attracting talent.”

It was the CIE at U of T that ultimately helped Sakyi land a job. One of the CIE’s experiential learning advisers, who also assisted Sakyi in preparing for job interviews, connected Sakyi to her current position as a stewardship programs and services co-ordinator at U of T’s Division of University Advancement.

With the requisite work experience in hand, she has since applied for permanent residence – and, thanks to the policy change, she doesn’t have to worry about losing status while she awaits approval.

“The government extending the work permit by 18 months is making a huge difference in our lives,” Sakyi said. “I’m sure there are a lot of people who are sleeping easier now.”