Published by EGE News Friday, December 1, 2017

International students see more opportunity in Montreal, but most leave

Reasons include immigration issues, higher salaries or better jobs elsewhere, a desire to go home or simply a dislike of our cold winters.

Abdelrahman Elshafei is an Egyptian international student studying computer sciences at Concordia University. Elshafei wants to stay in Canada after he completes his studies. He is seen at the Hall building of Concordia University in Montreal on Thursday November 30, 2017. ALLEN MCINNIS / MONTREAL GAZETTE

As Montreal’s unemployment rate hovers near record-low levels, an economic development agency is trying to encourage more international students to stay after graduation, but while those students say they see opportunities in the city, many are still on the fence about staying.

Sven James graduated from Concordia University in 2010, with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering. James, who is from Antigua, got a post-graduate work permit and found a job in the city.

In 2013, he went to England to do a master’s degree. While he originally planned to return to Montreal, he ultimately went back to Antigua.

The decision came after he saw many of his Concordia classmates, including some who had grown up in Montreal, leave the city, looking for opportunities elsewhere. 

“From what I was hearing my friends saying, the salaries they were making out in Silicon Valley, or even in Vancouver or Toronto kind of dwarfed what I was making in Montreal, or even what I could make in Montreal,” he said. “So I figured if I’m going to go for the career option, I would want to try and migrate out west, or if I want to do my own thing, I’d probably move back home.” 

He chose the latter — and currently runs two small software businesses.

For some international students, staying in Montreal isn’t a consideration.

“Returning to New York was definitely the plan,” he said.

There are currently more than 32,000 international students at universities and colleges in the Montreal area, according to Montréal International, an economic development agency.

Between 20 and 25 per cent of international graduates end up staying in Montreal, said Mathieu Lefort, the director of I Choose Montréal, Montréal International’s program to encourage international students to stay after graduation.

Encouraging students to stay after graduation is important because the city’s aerospace, information technology and life sciences sectors are all in need of skilled workers, he said. “Talent is key for local companies.”

International students appear to be more optimistic about their opportunities in Montreal than those who studied here a few years ago.

Abdelrahman Elshafei, who is studying engineering at Concordia, said he plans to stay in Canada, but he’s not sure whether he’ll stay in Montreal.

Elshafei, who is originally from Egypt, said he sees job opportunities here — he has an internship at Ericsson — but sees more opportunities in Vancouver and Toronto, particularly for non-French speakers. 

Elshafei is on the executive of Concordia’s International Student Association and his colleague, Florian Bleuvais, has similar views. 

“I’m planning on staying,” said Bleuvais, who is from France and studying mechanical engineering, “but Toronto is also an option.”

Montréal International is part of a larger project that aims to increase the number of Quebec Selection Certificates issued to international students in the Montreal area by 19,000 over three years, Lefort said. 

“There are some challenges for international students,” Lefort said. The two biggest ones are navigating the immigration process and finding jobs.

To help students overcome those challenges, it’s organizing information sessions about immigration law and networking events to help international students build their professional networks.

It’s also working to encourage students to take advantage of existing resources to learn French and, in the case of international students coming from French-speaking countries, to learn English. 

“I think Canada, and Quebec, is well-positioned in terms of immigration,” Lefort said. There are federal and provincial programs aimed at international students.

“The challenge is to get the right information,” he said. 

But there are some things that a stronger job market and efforts by economic development agencies can’t change — both Hudson and James said Montreal’s cold winters were a factor in their decisions.