The credentials conundrum: We lure professionals, but insist on Canadian experience

We lure professionals, but insist on Canadian experience

Every year, thousands of skilled immigrants enter Canada hoping to continue their careers. But many foreign-trained doctors, nurses, engineers and other professionals find themselves driving a cab or working as a security guard because employers refuse to recognize the credentials, education and experience earned in their native lands. “It's a catch-22 situation,” says Naomi Alboim, a fellow at the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University, who has been studying the problem for some 20 years. “You can't get a job in your field without Canadian experience, and you can't get that experience without a job.”

Immigrants all too often find that risk-averse Canadian employers won't hire them because they fear there are gaps in their professional knowledge or they may lack the language skills to work in this country. Even foreign-trained professionals who do get work in their chosen fields frequently find their experience and education are undervalued, according to Alboim. Foreign-trained immigrants typically earn about 30% less than Canadian-born workers with similar credentials, according to a newly released study conducted by Alboim and her colleagues for the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy. Meanwhile, the failure to recognize the education and professional credentials of about 340,000 immigrants costs between $3.4 billion and $5 billion in lost wages every year, according to the Conference Board of Canada.

In an effort to stem those losses, members of the business community, government and other stakeholders formed the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council last year. “Ultimately, we have to change the way employers look at foreign experience,” says project manager Elizabeth McIsaac. “Right now, it's a liability–but in a globalized economy, it's really an asset.” The group has helped launch several initiatives to remove potential roadblocks to employment, including Career Bridge, an internship program that places professional newcomers with local employers to expose them to much-needed Canadian experience. Fully 85% of participants in the program, unveiled less than a year ago, found full-time employment by the end of their internship. TRIEC is also starting a mentoring program to link skilled immigrants with people currently working in their fields to help them tap into existing professional networks.

Similar schemes are now being considered in Waterloo, Ont., and other cities, including Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa and Halifax, are taking steps to address the issue. While they may help only a handful of immigrants, business and community leaders say the initiatives are definitely a step in the right direction. With the economy increasingly reliant on imported skills, many wonder how long Canada can afford to ignore qualified foreign professionals.