Wasting B.C.’s Skilled Immigrant Workers

B.C.'s hard-working immigrants are arriving only to toil in low-wage survival jobs, abandoning their career aspirations. So how do we stop the cycle?

Jennifer Chun, UBC Sociology | BCBusiness
UBC professor of sociology Jennifer Chun.

B.C.’s hard-working immigrants are arriving only to toil in low-wage survival jobs, abandoning their career aspirations. So how do we stop the cycle?

Canada is in desperate need of more highly skilled, educated immigrants. At least that’s what we’re told by studies such as the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Talent Risk Report. Despite current concerns about persistently high unemployment, the study estimates that current immigration and birth rates in Canada will not be enough to replace retiring workers, leading to a severe talent shortage by 2030.

The good news is that Canada does better than most when it comes to attracting foreign talent. Foreign-born workers with university education make up 10 per cent of Canada’s workforce, compared to two per cent in Europe and 4.5 per cent in the U.S. The bad news is that much of this talent is going to waste in dead-end, low-wage jobs. 

Stories about foreign-trained doctors driving cabs are legendary, and a December 2011 UBC study titled Immigrants and Low-Paid Work confirms they are more than the stuff of urban myth. Researchers gathered 44 immigrants into four panel discussions in the Vancouver area, starting in the summer of 2010, and gave them free rein to tell their stories. One of the startling discoveries is just how easy it is for a skilled person to get trapped in a cycle of low-wage work that essentially kills their career aspirations.

For instance, the report includes the story of Robert, who worked for 13 years as an electrician in the shipbuilding industry in the Philippines before bringing his family to Canada in 2010. He failed time and again to find work in his field, and gradually watched his life savings dwindle to nothing. He abandoned his career to work as a janitor.

Then there’s Rocio, a former financial controller from Bolivia whose only barrier to working in his chosen field was improving his English. Forced to take low-wage work to support his family, he had no time to take any classes. He also gave up on pursuing his career of choice.

Yoyo Xu, a 35-year-old mother of two in Vancouver, tells BCBusiness that her Chinese-immigrant friends, many of whom worked office jobs before immigrating, are now working as babysitters or cleaners, or have found jobs in factories, bakeries and canneries. Xu herself worked in an office in her native China as a database manager before moving to Canada to join her new husband nine years ago. Soon after she arrived she started taking ESL courses and found part-time work as a quality checker in a Vancouver garment factory, earning $8 an hour. Taking time off to give birth to two sons, she has also worked as a part-time grocery-store cashier, for $8.50 an hour. Today her family is getting by, she says, but there’s never much money left over. “Everything is getting expensive,” Xu says. “The tax is getting higher, the transportation and the groceries, but the work pay does not get raised very much.”

One of the UBC report’s authors, UBC sociology professor Jennifer Chun, started this research in the hope that stories from real immigrants would attract some much-needed attention to this long-standing problem. She reports that many of the immigrants who participated in the study said they were encouraged to come here because of their education and skills, the implicit message being that they were needed and that they’d have a chance to work and contribute. They did not expect to have to abandon their careers and work menial survival jobs with the vague hope that the future might be better for their children. “So many of them were educated and had professional work experience before they came to Canada,” Chun says. “But at some point they had all given up . . .
because they had become stuck in the cycle of low-paid work.”

Not only are skilled immigrants forced into a cycle of low-paying jobs, but the gap between immigrant pay and that of the rest of the population is growing. In the ’60s and ’70s, new immigrants who came to Canada also started off earning less than the Canadian-born, but they’d usually catch up within 10 years or so, explains Daniel Hiebert, a professor of geography at UBC and the co-director of Metropolis B.C., an immigration-focused research group. But since then, not only are the starting earnings of recent immigrants dropping, but so is the rate at which those earnings increase. Immigrants who arrived between 1976 and 1980 earned 25 per cent less than the Canadian-born, while those who arrived between 1991 and 1995 earned 38 per cent less.

The cycle of immigrant under-employment continues to deepen despite the concerted efforts of Canada’s immigration system to attract the best and brightest. Forty-two per cent of immigrants arriving in 2006 had a university degree, according to a 2011 study by the Royal Bank of Canada. That’s more than double the percentage of Canadians with degrees, and three times the percentage of immigrants who arrived in 1981. 

In B.C. especially, employment is not a guarantee of escaping financial hardship. B.C. has Canada’s highest proportion of children living in what Statistics Canada defines as “low income.” Immigrant families are three times more likely to fall into this category than those born in Canada. Low-income families in B.C. are the most likely to have at least one parent who works full-year and full-time, indicating that poverty in this province is not necessarily a matter of unemployment, but of low wages.

A few key issues are holding immigrants back in the labour market, some more obvious than others. Language barriers, for instance, are a common problem, especially as the nature of entry-level jobs has shifted from manufacturing to services. Another significant barrier is the low value employers place on foreign work experience. “Generally speaking,” UBC’s Hiebert says, the value that employers place on foreign experience “is pretty much zero.” Perhaps the most feared question an immigrant can face in a job interview is, “Do you have Canadian experience?” Many skilled immigrants are familiar with this Catch-22: they need Canadian work experience to get a job, and need a job to get Canadian work experience.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development confirmed in a December 2011 report that incomes in Canada have never been more unequal. The result is an increasingly polarized job market, says Jennifer Chun, with “good,” high-paying jobs on one end, “bad” low-wage jobs on the other and precious little in the gulf between. And immigrants, through no fault of their own, have been increasingly gravitating toward the poor end of the employment spectrum. “The unchallenged assumption,” says Chun, is “that certain workers from certain backgrounds are most ideal to work these low-paid jobs.”

The UBC study, which Chun co-authored with UBC sociology student Amanda Cheong, identifies a category of immigrant workers even less fortunate than those forced to accept low-paying jobs: skilled immigrants who can’t find jobs in their fields and can’t find low-wage work either. They’re often advised to dumb down their resumes because they can’t afford to look overqualified for the low-level job market. The irony is that while Canada’s immigration system is interested in skills and education, employers are not.

Hiebert believes the solution does not lie simply in governments and NGOs providing more English classes, job fairs and resume-writing workshops. Services alone won’t fix the labour market’s failure to integrate immigrants, he says: “They can’t solve this problem. This is something the private sector has to figure out.”

Kelly Pollack agrees. She’s the executive director of the Immigrant Employment Council of B.C., which has a mandate to help employers make better use of the immigrant work force. “I look at this to some degree as a market failure,” Pollack says. “If we don’t do a better job of integrating the talented immigrants that we bring in, we will struggle as our demographics shift.”

So far, best practices are mostly seen in big firms with sophisticated HR divisions, such as banks, Pollack says. Unfortunately, few of these are headquartered in B.C. The small businesses that dominate this province’s economy are still hiring the way they always have: mostly through their personal networks, which immigrants often can’t access. More and more employers want to make better use of immigrant workers, Pollack says, but often they just don’t know how.

Systemic problems, such as employers’ insistence on Canadian work experience, are among the most daunting challenges. “It’s a way of screening people out easily,” Pollack says. And such attitudes are not likely to shift quickly. Pollack believes it will take a major labour crunch to force employers to reconsider the prevailing attitudes. Another possibility is that a younger generation of employers with more experience working in multicultural settings will be more open to hiring immigrants, she suggests.

If the labour market doesn’t find a way to integrate skilled immigrants more equitably into the workforce, however, there are risks. Riots in recent years by largely unemployed immigrant youth in major European cities are a hint. UBC’s Hiebert is hopeful that as demographics shift, a scarcity of talented workers will solve the problem. But if that doesn’t happen, the results are unlikely to be pleasant.

“I’m not trying to be a fear monger,” Hiebert says, but “if people are systematically marginalized, eventually they get very upset.”