December 6, 2023


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Why do so many international students in B.C. end up in service jobs?

4 min read
Why do so many international students in B.C. end up in service jobs?

In a two-storey laneway house in East Vancouver’s Killarney neighbourhood, packaged spices, pickle jars, and other ingredients and cutlery used to make Himalayan-style dumplings fill the kitchen and living room.

“My wife and I are gearing to start a business to sell traditional Nepali delicacies here,” said 31-year-old Santosh Acharya.

But selling Nepalese food wasn’t what Acharya had in mind when he first arrived in Vancouver in May 2018.

“I came as an international student to get a master’s degree in HR administration,” he said, which he earned in Dec. 2019. “After completing my studies, I found it very tough to get a job in HR administration.”

Pots and steamers are stacked above a shelf with half of the triangle of the Nepali flag visible
Santosh Acharya’s living space is filled with cutleries like aluminum steamers and traditional pots as he prepares to run a home-based food business. (Gabriel Osorio/CBC News)

Acharya says he sent many applications but after being unable to land a job in his area of study, he had to contend with working in a restaurant, where he has been working as a manager for the last three years.

Acharya is one of thousands of international students in B.C. who find themselves working low-paying service-sector jobs after spending up to four times more in undergraduate or postgraduate tuition fees compared to domestic students, says Jenny Francis, a faculty member at Langara College’s department of Geography. 

Over the last three years, Francis’s research has captured the immigration, education and employment experiences of about 1,300 international undergraduate students in the province. Among the people she surveyed, only 10 per cent said they earned more than $20 per hour.

A man is preparing food in a kitchen
Santosh Acharya thinks there’s demand for his homemade Nepalese food as more international students from Nepal make their way to Vancouver. (Gabriel Osorio/CBC News)

In 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, international students contributed $22.3 billion to the Canadian economy and almost $4.7 billion to B.C.

With the number of study permit applications more than doubling since 2017 from about 313,000 to about 715,000 in 2022, according to data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, Francis estimates international students’ contribution to be much more today.

“They invest so much, come with high expectations but end up in this cycle of working for retail, warehouse, fast food, which aren’t even enough to help them meet their needs,” Francis said.

Lack of ‘Canadian’ experience and networks

Francis says most international students lack necessary soft skills like communication. This is especially true for undergraduate students who have come to Canada without prior experience.

“They do not have the level of written or spoken English that employers are looking for,” says Francis.

While Francis believes it is easier for master’s degree holders to get a better job than undergraduate international students, a lack of Canadian work experience and professional networks can be limiting.

They also don’t have access to services like WorkBC, which helps job seekers improve their skills and connect with employers, Francis adds. 

She says about 75 per cent of jobs in Canada “are found through networks and references rather than from applying via job sites.”

Intention to work rather than study

According to Francis’s findings, many international students end up focusing more on work than school.

“Students are coming here with very limited resources and they need to start working right away and some are even sending money back home to their family,” she says. 

Deep Shah, who came to Canada in December 2018 to complete a postgraduate diploma in hotel management, says he had to juggle three jobs to support himself and send money to family in India.

After his father’s passing in 2020, he had to become the sole provider for his family, says Shah. 

A bearded man dressed in white stands below a bridge
Deep Shah says he works three jobs and sends money to family in India. (Nicholas Allan/CBC News)

“I send about $1,200 every month to my mother,” he says. 

He is still holding down three jobs, working as an administrative assistant in a residential building, a dog walker and a food delivery driver.

International students also take jobs in the service sector to get a quicker pathway to permanent residency, says Francis.

To apply for permanent residency, an applicant should have at least one year of experience in a skilled job category as specified in the national occupational classification. Working as a supervisor at a restaurant, for example, counts. 

“People say, let’s try working in restaurants, it would be easier to get PR — and so now I am stuck with it,” Acharya said, referring to being offered a supervisory role at the restaurant where he currently works.

Post-secondary institutions must step up

Francis says post-secondary institutions should be more transparent on how they spend international student tuition fees, and allocate funds to provide employment and career counselling for international students.

In an email to CBC, B.C.’s Ministry of Post-Secondary Education said it will put forward solutions to address concerns shared by international students this fall. 

“We recognize that the international education system in its current form is not working as well as it could,” the ministry said in a statement to CBC.

The ministry said it has slated $480 million in the StrongerBC: Future Ready Action Plan to prepare students for in-demand careers. It says other initiatives are underway such as Find Your Path, a one-stop online tool to help students map their education and career.

But for now, people like Acharya and Shah suggest prospective students back home err on the side of caution before making the move. 

“When you actually come to Canada, you will find it very difficult,” says Acharya. “Think of your skills, think of what you want to do before you come here.” 


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