Skilled Labour Migrants: Ticket to Nowhere

Although perceived globally as a hot spot for skilled labour migrants, shortly after arriving in Canada, many immigrants have found they've purchased a ticket to nowhere.

Although perceived globally as a hot spot for skilled labour migrants, shortly after arriving in Canada, many immigrants have found they’ve purchased a ticket to nowhere.

A mechanical engineer slicing meat in a deli. A lawyer shovelling asphalt for a construction company. A building inspector delivering pizza. An agricultural consultant with a PhD selling hardware at Home Depot. Even as the B.C. government and local industries complain loudly about the province’s skilled-labour shortage, talented newcomers with impressive CVs and armloads of international credentials are working minimum-wage jobs or, worse, no job at all. Thrilled to receive permanent residency, these educated and experienced immigrants arrive in B.C. expecting to find suitable employment. Many of them are, on paper, exactly the kind of new Canadians Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is trying to attract. But the bitter workplace reality they are discovering in B.C. is driving these professionals away. All too often they don’t get hired without Canadian experience, and their credentials aren’t recognized until they complete arduous and often expensive retraining to gain qualifications. As U.K.-trained architect Steve Burland explains, “The way immigration works is you have to apply to the federal government and the federal government says yes, you are qualified to do this profession. But it is totally disconnected with what happens in the provinces and nobody makes you aware of this until you arrive. So you think you’ve done all your homework, and suddenly find that what you’ve done and what you think you know is totally useless.” Are protectionism, racism and government miscommunication making it hard for new immigrants to get work in a province complaining about a skilled-labour shortage? Two years ago, a Canada West Foundation survey reported that 73 out of 76 professional associations across the western provinces anticipated labour shortfalls by 2006, and 40 per cent said the number of graduates in their respective fields would be inadequate to meet future industry demand. “In individual categories, the shortages in B.C. could be quite severe,” says Credit Union Central of B.C. economist David Hobden. “Certainly in mining, oil and gas, with commodity prices so high, there’s been a lot of exploration and ramping-up of existing mines and wells and therefore a big demand for skilled workers. Pharmacists and nurses are always in short supply. And we need social workers and people for the retail trade.” Meanwhile, the red-hot construction industry is driving demand for architectural, engineering and design services. By 2013 the number of new jobs created in the construction sector alone is predicted to exceed 60,000. Burland, 48, immigrated to Vancouver in 2001 and spent much time and effort to pass his Architectural Institute of B.C. exams. As of May, five-plus years later, his skills were officially recognized at the conclusion of “a little tortuous” processing of his Royal Institute of British Architects paperwork plus an oral exam. He now works for DGBK, but as a member of the Institute of Foreign Architects he is keenly aware of the fate of many of his peers who, unable to make use of years of training, ended up in the sales office. South African systems engineer Duly Peer, 55, can only wish for a sales job. Or a waiter’s. Since December of last year he has submitted more than 50 job applications, beginning with employment opportunities in his field including project management, senior engineering and wireless research. Not one nibble. Born and raised in South Africa, Peer, who is of Indian descent, escaped the apartheid regime when he was 17 after winning a United Nations scholarship to study in Europe. Not wanting to be treated as a second-class citizen, he lived in self-imposed exile in Germany for 17 years. After Nelson Mandela was freed from prison he eagerly returned to his homeland in 1992 in time for the country’s first full and free elections. With apartheid on the way out, Peer believed he could achieve his full potential. He met his wife, Shere, and within a few years they built a comfortable life for themselves and their three kids in Johannesburg. With two German-earned degrees – a master’s in systems engineering and an MBA – plus extensive work experience at home and abroad, Peer enjoyed a $144,000 annual salary heading the research division of Eskom, Africa’s largest electricity producer and one of the world’s top 10 electricity suppliers. Shere contributed to the family’s income as an accountant with the South African government, specializing in audits and taxation. Financially and socially life was good, but after four carjackings and several house invasions, the Peers decided to move to Canada last year for the safety and future of their children, aged five to 10. An immigration consultant in South Africa told Duly Peer that a man of his background would find it easy to attain a comparable position in Canada, and Peer admits he did little research to find out how difficult it would be to get into the job market. “I thought with my engineering degree and with my background and work experience, there must be some company out there I can create value for. But now I feel that Canada says we will give you permanent residence, you are highly skilled, you fit the profile but I have the impression that I must do unskilled work.” He lowered his expectations and sought entry-level tele-communication jobs in the $40,000 range. No luck. And so he lowered them again. Having earned extra money waiting tables in restaurants during his student days, he tried to resurrect his serving skills to pay the rent by taking a $14-an-hour job at a large hotel. “I thought, I’m not getting work and I need some type of income so I thought I would use these other skills that I have. But they said: ‘Duly, you are a professional, the waiters that we have here will not accept you.’ And the guy who interviewed me said, ‘You look like my own boss. How can I employ you?’” Disillusionment flashes across his face as he discusses his efforts to find work and the effect of the changed circumstances on his family. Living on their savings and cashed-in retirement funds, reluctant to splurge on even a trip to Tim Hortons, has left the family “very disheartened,” Peer says. “We’ve told the children that we are having trouble finding work and that I might be going back to South Africa. They are not saying anything, but you can see the expression on their faces and it is very sad. All of my life I have been learning, reading, writing, doing research, exchanging ideas, meeting engineers and going to conferences. I’ve never been in a situation like this and the longer I stay here the more frustrating it becomes.” The birth rate is dropping and boomers are starting to retire. B.C. needs immigrants; without them the province stands no chance of maintaining a growing labour force. But while multiple degree-holders such as Peer raise the IQ of the province, they don’t necessarily have the skills that B.C.’s short-staffed tourism, transport, energy and construction sectors are looking for. Duly Peer says it’s time for government and industry to co-operate to make sure potential immigrants know landing a job will be tough. “I think Canadian immigration will do justice to the immigration process if they could partner with Canadian industry to find the right profile of people they need.” [pagebreak] B.C. is the third most popular destination for immigrants to Canada. Between 2000 and 2004, almost 88,000 moved here from the U.S. and overseas. The majority were aged 25 to 44 and almost two-thirds were university-educated, compared with less than a fifth of the B.C. population. One-third had post-graduate qualifications: all talent waiting to be hired. A recent study from Statistics Canada shows that skilled and business-class immigrants (those who are given permission to settle if they have funds to start up a viable business) make up about 57 per cent of all recent immigrants. They are much more likely to return to their original countries than other immigrants and refugees, likely out of frustration that they cannot meet their career and financial goals, given the real-life economics of living in B.C. versus the rosy picture painted for them by immigration consultants back home. Between 1980 and 2000, 40 per cent of skilled and business-class male immigrants between the ages of 25 and 45 left Canada. Several studies also show that immigrant graduates earn significantly less than their Canadian-born and educated peers, and are more likely to be unemployed and live in poverty. The fact new immigrants don’t feel like they’re integrating into the B.C. economy is recognized at the federal level. Resettlement funding has been raised by $307 million, providing a further $18 million to make foreign credential recognition less bureaucratic, and cutting immigrant-landing fees from $975 to $490. Monte Solberg, Minister for Citizenship and Integration, says one of his priorities is to create a new federal agency to help immigrants get their degrees and credentials recognized faster. In an interview with Ottawa reporters last February, he indicated the federal government did not plan to adjust the annual target number of immigrants (about 245,000 last year). “I don’t think it’s the overall number that’s the issue. I think maybe it’s the mix.” B.C. still lags behind Alberta and Ontario when it comes to finding stable jobs for newcomers. A long-term study recently released by Statistics Canada shows that 43 per cent of immigrants who arrived here between 2000 and 2001 landed jobs after six months, and 62 per cent found work after two years. In the same period in Alberta, 63 per cent were employed within six months and 69 per cent within two years. In Ontario, the most popular destination in terms of total number of immigrants arriving annually, more than half landed jobs within six months and 68 were employed at the two-year mark. Hilde Schlosar, executive director of the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society, says job-finding struggles are a common immigrant experience. “In this area, most of the immigrants come from mainland China, Hong Kong, Korea and the Punjab region of India. Unfortunately, many of them are in jobs below their skill level so they end up under-employed doing labouring jobs, delivering pizza, driving cabs, picking salal, washing dishes or working on salmon farms. There’s a lot of wasted talent out there.” She admits that the language barrier can be an issue for some, but for those professional-class immigrants who don’t already speak English, language classes pre- and post-arrival easily rectify the problem. The two major hurdles faced by immigrants, according to Schlosar, are the recognition of overseas credentials and gaining Canadian experience. The issue of Canadian work experience is a particularly thorny one, says Schlosar. “Even though they have had 10 years of experience in their country of origin, immigrants are having great difficulty getting into the workplace because employers want them to have Canadian work experience, but who is going to give it to them? The fear by employers is that the culture will be too different and they won’t fit in with the other employees in the work environment.” Examples of cross-cultural misunderstanding? In some Asian countries giving regular gifts to the boss is an entirely acceptable practice, one that is frowned upon here. And casual conversation around the water cooler may leave some immigrants completely bewildered, accustomed as they are to more formal office environments where details of one’s private life are strictly off-limits. “There are some workplace-culture issues here, but somehow we need to give foreign-trained professionals and skilled immigrants an opportunity to have that work-based experience.” Schlosar says. “There are many benefits to diversity in the workplace. Coming from densely populated countries, these people have learned work efficiencies and different ways of doing things. Why wouldn’t we want to learn from that?” The Business Council of B.C.’s most recent report on immigration highlights issues faced by employers. The lack of familiarity with the Canadian workplace was a recurring theme according to Ed Wong, the council’s VP of education partnerships. “It is not just about being able to do things. In a team environment you really do have to have an appreciation of the workplace culture. If it’s a very technical area, you really do have to be able to use the technical language.” Various sectors were canvassed for the report, including biotech, aviation, tourism and engineering. Among other issues raised: the difficulty in assessing the true worth of international qualifications, the limited information available to immigrants, and the need for more preparation by immigrants. Possible solutions suggested in the report include testing immigrants for certain occupations before they arrive in Canada, a database of international educational institutes and a wider availability of skills enhancement programs. Wong says that better immigration preparation in tandem with improved pre-settlement support may also ease the problem. The Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society (PICS) in Surrey is one of several organizations helping immigrants out of this Catch-22 by running a job-mentoring scheme aimed solely at professionals. Jay Bains, who co-ordinates the program, says the bigger companies are the most resistant. “We try and match immigrants with a person with a similar kind of work experience and this person starts providing contacts and a profess-ional network. It is easy to convince the smaller businesses to give our clients a chance, but as soon as we go to the big corporations it is very difficult to penetrate their human resources departments. It is just easier for them to choose the person with the local skills and education they recognize.” Proving the value of overseas qualifications and training is a challenge for many professions eager to grow their numbers, yet wary that standards could drop. Each province has its own professional bodies, but they are really set up to deal with Canadian training and qualifications and to protect the interests of their current members, not authenticate the certificates of overseas professionals such as engineers, accountants, pharmacists, medical technologists, surveyors and architects. And even though the associations representing these professions recognize B.C.’s skills shortage, most are doubling their efforts to recruit new talent at the high school, college and university level rather than smooth the path for experienced, foreign-trained white-collar workers. Steve Burland says while the Architectural Institute of B.C. (AIBC) is looking into the matter and is more proactive than many groups, it doesn’t have the resources to change the situation. “There seems to be no system and no standards actually written down for people to meet, so it is very difficult for foreign-registered architects to come and register [here].” Plus it’s an extra step, and an extra cost, for immigrants to factor into their career plans. Re-certification may satisfy the various regulatory bodies, but it’s a time-consuming process that doesn’t necessarily increase the skill level of the individual. “Let’s get some standard testing in place,” Bains pleads. “There needs to be more pressure from government on these associations and credentialing bodies.” Paul Mulangu, who runs the Centre of Integration for African Immigrants in New Westminster, believes race also has a part to play in the employment chances of immigrants. “Racism is not just black and white. In B.C. it is very difficult because the work is ethnic with Chinese, Caucasian or Indians dominating in certain areas. If you don’t speak the language or don’t have that background, it’s very hard to penetrate this,” he says. “Ethnic minorities need to open their doors to other ethnic minorities. Different groups say they suffer but they are not going to help other ethnic minorities.” [pagebreak] Mulangu, who is from Democratic Republic of Congo, originally trained as a metallurgical engineer and came to B.C. 10 years ago. He tried to get a job in his field but after a year of unsuccessful interviews he moved on. He now uses his B.C-acquired counselling skills to help African immigrants prepare for the Canadian job market. But he observes that no matter their background, most African immigrants to Canada end up in health-care or cleaning jobs. In response to the growing problem, the B.C. Ministry of Economic Development launched a province-wide three-year pilot program in May called Skills Connect, aimed at highly qualified individuals with a good level of English. Economic Development Minister Colin Hansen says, “For too long, immigrants have been frustrated by long wait times and barriers to getting the jobs that match their skills. If immigrants move to B.C. to work in a field where there is a shortage, then we need to help them get their training and credentials recognized.” Skills Connect is similar to schemes running in other provinces. The emphasis will be on providing mentoring opportunities, relevant workplace experience, assessment of qualifications and experience and training to meet local labour demands. Six settlement organizations in B.C. will be offering the service and the early focus of the scheme will be on placing immigrants with employers within the energy, construction, tourism and hospitality and transportation sectors. Although the provincial government will provide $14.5 million in funding and the federal government added another $10 million, the scheme is only expected to help find jobs for around 5,000 immigrants. “In the long term it should be fruitful,” Duly Peer says. “Without referrals, it’s very difficult to find a job in this market.” Other immigrants remain cautious. Herbal medicine specialist Raminder Kang, who arrived in Vancouver from India in 2004, gave up on finding a job in holistic health care and relied on his earlier degree in journalism to get a job as an on-air host for an Indo-Canadian radio station. Having seen many acquaintances flounder in the B.C. job market, he advises Indian professionals to think twice before applying for Canadian work visas. “The future is very, very bleak,” he says. “It is very hard to get into their own professions, whatever their level of experience, and unless there are changes in the system, nothing is going to happen.” Many professional immigrant organizations are lobbying for a better system of skills and qualifications recognition. The latest is the Canadian Professional Immigrants Association, which was set up in Surrey earlier this year. Jasbir Singh Mann, 54, is the spokesperson for the group, and says it was founded by concerned immigrants out of pure frustration. “As a Canadian citizen, I feel pained when I see all the professional immigrants’ talents being wasted. Canada is losing a rich pool of talent that it didn’t have to pay a single penny for.” The globe-trotting agricultural consultant, who has lived in B.C. since 1997, took the self-employment route after a number of setbacks. With a PhD in agricultural sciences and postdoctoral work in entymology undertaken at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, the Indian-born scientist never had much trouble finding work in his field. He worked as a university professor in India and a government scientist in Australia. But in B.C. his initial attempts to find employment or even to work for free at research labs ended in failure. “Before coming to Canada I wrote a few letters to the universities and research institutions. When I came here I contacted them and met them in person, but no one was even willing to take me on as a volunteer. The job market here is so hidden that it is hard to find a job on the open market. They say you have to go out and look for work but there are no job offers for people like me who are trained in foreign countries,” says Mann. For 18 months he earned a living selling windows and doors, then found a sales associate job at Home Depot, where he worked for several years. Eventually, he found a part-time job with a small agricultural consultancy and now he runs his own crop-consulting company, taking care of pest control on several farms in the Fraser Valley. Hilde Schlosar believes that if the issue is not tackled, it will lead to serious economic and social problems. “Sooner or later we have to come to terms with the fact that we are experiencing or going to experience a labour shortage, and if we don’t solve the problem in a constructive way soon, then we’re going to have a much bigger problem down the road. “I think we have to become more flexible about how we welcome people from other countries. Maybe employers could help new immigrants adjust to the work environment through some kind of job sharing or job shadowing. By being more open and welcoming, they may end up with a very solid, very dedicated loyal employee who brings a different perspective to the workplace.” As he sits in a downtown coffee bar nursing a cappuccino, Duly Peer ponders his diminishing options. The one time he received feedback on an application, he was told he was overqualified for the post. It was also suggested that he remove any mention of his master’s from his resume. Unable to secure a job that does justice to his experience and overqualified for “survival jobs” that will pay the bills, he is ready to give up on Canada. “I can’t keep pace with developments in my field if I can’t do the reading, and I’m not applying the knowledge and getting feedback from other engineers and associates, so I am thinking I should go back to South Africa while I still have networks and contacts,” he says. “I’m not asking for a big job. I’m not even asking for the salary I had in South Africa. I’m just asking for a job that can build me Canadian experience and over time, maybe in two or three years, I can get the type of job that I am qualified for.” A pointless system Citizenship and Immigration Canada runs a skilled-worker scheme that is open to graduates and people with certified skills. Applicants are awarded points for the length of their education, documented professional skills, a proven track record in their chosen field and their English- or French-speaking ability. For example, a PhD or master’s degree earns you 25 points while a trade apprenticeship is worth only 15, making it much harder for the community college-educated journeyman to get through. Although certain occupations get more points, a degree in anthropology will get you the same number of points as a degree in mining engineering, which does nothing to reflect the hard reality that there are few jobs going begging for anthropologists but a real demand for mining professionals. Another criticism is that the system undervalues work experience; four years in your field earns you 21 points, but one year alone is worth 15. The provincial nominee program allows employers to support the application of people with specific skills for a particular industry. It has a shorter processing time of six months (compared to 24 to 50 months for federal applications) and pulls in people with skills in shortage areas such as construction. Manitoba and Saskatchewan accept a relatively small number of immigrants compared to B.C., but one-quarter arrive via the nominee program, which probably explains the higher integration levels. After six months, 65 per cent of immigrants to the Prairies are pulling a paycheque, and 74 per cent are employed at the two-year mark.