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Skilled migrant decision making under uncertainty (DEMA)

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A study to examine the decision making of prospective, high-skilled migrants who are aiming to settle in Canada in the face of the uncertainty created by the pandemic.

The project investigates how the pandemic risks and challenges shape overall motivations and plans among three categories of prospective migrants to Canada: highly skilled people applying from abroad to come to the country; temporary workers or visitors currently in the country applying for Permanent Residency, and international students and post-graduate permit holders who seek to land in Canada.

Applying a comparative lens, the project will produce new, first-hand knowledge of how the pandemic may shape directly decision making (to come, stay, delay, or speed up immigration moves) among diverse groups of prospective highly skilled migrants. It will examine the role of socio-demographic features, labour-market sectors, cultural and psychological factors, and the role of policies and services. The project will contribute to our understanding of the interaction between aspiration, capacity, and opportunity in (high-skilled) migrant decision making under conditions of uncertainty. Focusing on the impact of health-related factors on the decision making of highly skilled migrants coming to post-industrial societies like Canada, the study also complements epidemiology studies on earlier regional epidemics (like HIV or Ebola).

  1. What are the social, economic and policy factors that influence the decision making of different groups of prospective high-killed migrants who seek to land in Canada under uncertain conditions?
  2. What role can government and non-government stakeholders play to attract and retain high-skilled migrants to ensure socio-economic and demographic growth during the post-pandemic recovery period? 

As the Covid-19 pandemic has unfolded around the world, the importance of migration and mobility, and the challenges and opportunities that they represent, have become dramatically visible. We have witnessed countries like Canada making unprecedented decisions to close borders to both migrants and visitors, while at the same time making emergency arrangements to bring in migrant workers in agriculture and care work. The highly skilled migrants, for which post-industrial countries are generally competing, have been left stranded at origin even if they had completed their paperwork and had job offers waiting for them. Other such highly skilled professionals are to be found at the destination country with insecure status as their immigration applications have been held up in the pandemic emergency.

For Canada, the pandemic is not only posing short-term challenges with regards to border restrictions and quarantine arrangements aimed at protecting public health, it raises important medium and long-term risks to the supply of skilled immigration, which is a vital element in the country’s socio-economic and demographic growth. While the federal government is facilitating the conversion of many groups to permanent status, such as visitors with temporary or precarious status, work permit holders and refugee claimants, as well as prioritizing applications for study permits, it is unlikely that Canada will meet its immigrant target of one million new immigrants for the 2020-2022 period. Migrant labour is likely to be at the forefront of the economic recovery, whether through the foreign talent required for technological or social innovation or the migrant labour force that is needed to fill jobs in the essential sectors of the economy. In this disrupted and uncertain COVID19 world, understanding better the drivers of international, highly skilled migration and how the pandemic is affecting the decision making of prospective migrants is key to supporting Canada’s future immigration plans, economic recovery and demographic sustainability.

Starting by reviewing the relevant literature, the study adopts a mixed-methods approach using complementary quantitative (an online-survey), qualitative (semi-structured qualitative interviews and focus groups, conducted online, or in person if possible) and quasi-experimental methods (where a group of highly skilled migrants are faced with a fictitious context within which they have to make decisions).

  • Online survey includes the three prospective high-skilled migrant groups planning to land in any province in Canada.
  • Interviews will be conducted in two phases: the first phase includes stakeholders involved in immigration management, and the second phase includes prospective high-skilled migrants planning to land in Ontario and Quebec, the two major immigrant destinations.
  • Focus groups with each of the three high-skilled groups will be conducted to further explore their opinions regarding effective measures and initiatives that federal/provincial/local authorities and non-state actors can put in place to address the current situation.
  • Through three quasi-experiments, imaginary scenarios and specific options will be presented to the prospective high-skilled migrants who want to land in Ontario.  Their responses will offer  a deeper understanding of migrants’ decision making at critical junctures, such as a pandemic.

We are in the first stage of the research project with desk research underway. We are preparing for semi-structured qualitative interviews with stakeholders involved in immigration management. We are also finalizing a review article entitled, ‘Highly Skilled Migrant Decision-Making under Uncertainty: A literature review’.

December 2025.

SSHRC Insight Grant

decision making, high-skill, pandemic, uncertainty, transition, employment, Canada.