Hiring International Students Attending Canadian Post-Secondary Schools to Address Skills Shortages – Immigration Considerations

Employers in the bio-tech sector, like many Canadian employers, face skills shortages. Some of these skills shortages may be addressed through the hiring of international graduates or students attending Canadian post-secondary institutions.

The number of international students attending school in Canada has grown significantly. Canada’s immigration policies have been designed to allow such foreign students opportunities to obtain work experience in Canada. Many international students will also be able to eventually transition to permanent resident status. Therefore, Canadian employers may be able to address some of their skills shortages by sourcing foreign national students or graduates to address both short and long term requirements.

This article provides a brief overview of options to hire international students attending school in Canada, and to transition them to permanent resident status in Canada.

Working While Attending School

This section will cover off-campus work and co-op work permits.

Foreign students may work off-campus without a work permit under the off-campus work program. To qualify, the international student must hold a valid study permit and must be a full time student enrolled at a recognized designated learning institution. They must be enrolled in a program of study of at least 6 months in duration that leads to a degree, diploma or certificate.

Eligible international students may work up to 20 hours per week during academic sessions and full time during regularly scheduled breaks, such as holidays, reading week, or the summer break between academic sessions. The off-campus work program may be used to hire and test out potential candidates that an employer may be interested in hiring full time after they complete their program of study.

Further information on off-campus work may be found at this link: IRCC Guide on Off-campus Work.

Some international students are registered in co-op programs. Such students are eligible for co-op work permits. The co-op work permit is an open work permit in that it allows the holder to work for any employer in Canada. The work permit itself lists the institution the foreign student is attending in the employer field on the work permit, but it can be utilized to work co-op work terms for any employer. Further information may be found at this link: IRCC Guide on Co-op Work Permits.

Note that the above two options are for international students attending eligible post-secondary institutions in Canada. This article will not deal with potential internships for foreign nationals who are attending school outside of Canada. Generally, someone attending school outside of Canada would require a work permit to be able to take on an internship inside Canada. Further information from IRCC on such internships may be found at this link: Working in Canada as an Intern.

Post-Graduate Work Permits (PGWPs)

Canada has a robust post-graduate work permit program. To be eligible, the foreign student must have completed a program of study at a designated learning institution (List of DLIs) that was at least 8 months long and which leads to a degree or diploma. They must have maintained full-time status as a student during the study program.

The validity of the PGWP will depend on the length of the study program. If the study program was between 8 months and 2 years long, the work permit will be for the same length of time as the study program. If the program was 2 years or more, the PGWP will be issued for a 3 year duration.

The PGWP is an open work permit, which means that it is not job-specific. It will not list a specific employer, work location or occupation. The holder may work for any employer in Canada or work for several employers. However, if the holder plans to work in health/medical services, child care/education or agricultural occupations, an immigration medical would first have to be taken and passed.

Since it is an open work permit, it falls outside of IRCC’s employer compliance regime. Only employer- specific work permits are covered by the compliance regime. Consequently, an employer will not face a random compliance inspection relating to an open work permit holder. Another advantage of an open work permit (versus an employer-specific work permit) is that changes to the position or location of the worker can be made without having to consider whether a new work permit might be needed. With employer-specific work permits, such changes often cannot be made unless a new work permit is first obtained.

A person can hold a PGWP only once, but will often be able to transition to permanent resident status within its validity.

A foreign graduate has 180 days to apply for a PGWP after they are issued their final transcript and an official letter from the institution confirming that they have completed the study program. They must either hold a study permit, or they must have held a study permit in the 180 days prior to the date they apply for the PGWP.

Information on PGWP eligibility and other requirements is available here: PGWP Eligibility and PGWP Validity Information.

Transitioning to a PGWP

Employers should be aware of a number of issues that may need to be managed if they are hiring a PGWP applicant or if they are seeking to continue to employ an international student who was working for them under the off-campus work program and who is now transitioning to a PGWP.

International students who receive confirmation that they have graduated from their study program are no longer eligible to work under the off-campus work program.

However, pursuant to Regulation 186(w) of Canada’s immigration legislation, an international student in Canada who has applied, before the expiry of their study permit, for a change of status to a PGWP will usually be able to work full time without a work permit while waiting for the PGWP application to be processed.

Practically speaking, employers need to be careful not to illegally employ someone under the off-campus work program after they receive notification of completing their study program. However, the foreign student may usually start working full time if there is proof that they have filed their application for a PGWP, and if they had a valid study permit at the time the PGWP application was filed. They would subsequently need to provide a copy of that work permit to the employer or, if the PGWP application was denied for some reason, they would need to stop working immediately upon receiving such a denial.

Transitioning to Permanent Resident (PR) Status

Canada’s Express Entry PR regime and some of the provincial nominee programs provide PR options that many international students will be able to utilize to transition to PR status.

The Express Entry points system provides additional points to applicants who have obtained a post-secondary credential in Canada.

Depending on the person’s background and whether they have had prior skilled work experience, some candidates may need to gain at least 12 months of skilled work experience in Canada after graduating from the Canadian institution to be eligible to apply under the Express Entry regime, or to gain enough Express Entry points to be invited to apply for PR status once in the Express Entry Pool.

International students who wish to permanently settle in Quebec after graduating will need to first obtain a Certificat de sélection (CSQ) from Quebec before applying to the federal government for PR status.

The PR system in Canada is relatively predictable and transparent. Therefore, candidates can be reviewed and assessed to determine whether and when they would be expected to obtain PR status. This relative predictability helps employers manage human resource needs.


The main takeaway is that the immigration system in Canada is designed to facilitate the transition from international student, to temporary worker, and eventually to permanent resident status holder.

Bio-tech sector employers may be able to utilize international students or recent graduates from Canadian post-secondary institutions to address both current and longer term skills shortages.

If you have any questions relating to these matters, please do not hesitate to contact a member of Gowling WLG’s Immigration Practice Group.

NOT LEGAL ADVICE. This is for information purposes only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. You should not rely on, or take or fail to take any action based upon this information.

About the author

Image of Bill MacGregor of Gowling WLG Canada LLPBill MacGregor is a partner and leads the Immigration Group at Gowling WLG. His practice focuses exclusively on corporate and business immigration, delivering solutions while ensuring that employers remain compliant with immigration rules and regulations.  Bill has years of experience advising clients on all aspects of corporate immigration and developing immigration strategies.  He assists employers to obtain work permits for foreign national hires or transfers, and to transition work permit holders to permanent residents.

Bill MacGregor of Gowling WLG Canada LLP
[email protected]

Gowling WLG is a new international law firm created by the combination of Gowlings, a leading Canadian law firm, and Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co (WLG), a leading UK-based international law firm.

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