TORONTO—Canada’s global competitiveness will suffer unless companies deal with biases that are keeping professional immigrants underemployed, experts say.
“Many people still don’t get it. They still think that accepting immigrants to Canada is a social agenda, not recognizing that it is absolutely essential … for our global competitiveness,” said Wendy Cukier, founder and director of the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University.
“Companies need to realize it’s a competitive advantage to have people in your organization who look like the people you’re going to serve if you want to expand internationally.”
There are many government programs that seek to integrate professional immigrants into the Canadian workforce, but those attempts haven’t always been successful.
A 2008 study by the Conference Board of Canada pointed to statistics that show that as many as 40 per cent of skilled immigrants who come to Canada move away to pursue opportunities elsewhere within the first 10 years.
A report released last month by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce found the national unemployment rate among recent immigrants in the prime working age group of 25 to 54 was more than double that of Canadian-born individuals.
More than half of the recent immigrants had a university degree, compared to a quarter of the Canadian-born population, yet their unemployment rate was 12 per cent, five times the unemployment rate for university-educated, Canadian-born individuals.
“There are big gaps between expectations many immigrants have, especially well-educated ones who are prosperous in their home country and come to Canada to find they face barriers in a number of ways,” said Cukier.
One of those barriers remains discrimination, she added, whether it’s through the failure of recognizing foreign credentials from top foreign universities or showing an unintentional bias for Anglo-Saxon names in selecting candidates for interviews.
“There is no doubt from the research that we’ve done (that) discrimination exists, even though some of it may in fact be unintentional, and it’s a result of people just not thinking or not being sufficiently knowledgeable about some of these issues,” she said.
Helen Hai says a lack of Canadian experience and having English as a second language were the two biggest challenges she faced when she came to Canada.
She had left a management position at HSBC in her native China when her husband’s company transferred him to the Toronto area in 2011.
She had believed her experience with an international bank would help her land a similar job in Canada but, instead found herself volunteering while she applied for job after job.
Hai was eventually hired as a customer service agent at a major Canadian bank, but will now have to work her way back up the corporate ladder.
While she has friends who have become frustrated enough with the process to leave, Hai and her family are committed to the move—even if it means adjusting her job expectations.
“Your attitude is the most important thing,” said Hai.
“Some days are (hard) but you try, you make efforts, you make things happen. That’s the positive attitude that makes you have hope.”
People like Hai are willing start over, but experts point out that keeping skilled immigrants underemployed doesn’t help the economy.
“At the most basic level, if you’re paying personal income tax as a taxi driver versus personal income tax as a middle or high-level manager in financial planning, that in itself has an effect in the economy,” said Nora Priestly, who manages the bridging program for internationally educated professionals at York University.
But the repercussions are even bigger when it comes to the time and energy put into orienting newcomers into Canadian culture, as well as their own sense of worth, she said.
Linda Coutts, an employment adviser at the Centre for Skills Development and Training in Burlington, Ont., helps immigrants integrate into the workplace by teaching them idioms, how to make presentations and conduct a meeting in office settings that may be more casual than they’re used to.
She says language barriers and lack of what employers consider Canadian experience is a major obstacle for many immigrants who may have the right credentials and speak the language, but don’t quite understand the cultural references or nuances needed to fit in.
But credentials are also a problem with dentists, accountants and engineers who excelled in their home country but now face the prospect of heading back to school to meet Canadian qualifications.
On average, Coutts said, it takes five to seven years to settle into a new country and get back to where a person was before—a process that often requires taking on “survival” jobs that can throw people into a rut they find difficult to overcome.
In the last three years, she’s had two people return to their home countries.
“They just felt the obstacles were just too great,” Coutts said.
“It does happen. But again, it depends on why they left home in the first place.”