Although I grew up in Canada, to some extent, I consider myself an internationally educated professional (IEP). In many ways, I’m in the unique position of being able to understand an immigrant’s perspective while also having lived and worked most of my life in this country.
When I came back to Canada after completing my undergraduate education in Scotland, I was totally unprepared for the reverse culture shock. I also had a really hard time finding a job — any job — after living, working and studying abroad for four years. I actually felt like a foreigner in my own hometown.
As an HR professional, I’m in a good position to tell my story and hope at least a few people will think twice before rejecting candidates with no Canadian experience or a foreign degree from an unfamiliar university. As Canadians, I don’t think we value international qualifications and experience as much as we say we do.
I’m a proud Canadian but I’m also really proud of my heritage. I had a fantastic time in Scotland and learned so much, not just at university but from the jobs I had and people I met.
However, I made a mistake — not only where I studied but also because I chose to study law. That’s because in the United Kingdom, law is an undergraduate degree that can be completed with a high school diploma and because Scotland (unlike England) has a hybrid legal system, with both common and civil law elements. When I came back to Canada, employers didn’t know quite what to make of me.
It was also 1994 when I returned. Before I left Aberdeen, Scotland — the oil capital of Europe — the job market had weathered the storm of the recession pretty well. But Toronto hadn’t fared so well.
I applied for all types of jobs. I would have taken anything.
Recruiters told me openly they weren’t considering me because I didn’t have recent Canadian experience. People were hostile towards me for going to university outside Canada. “What’s wrong? Wasn’t a Canadian university good enough for you?” they sneered.
I obviously couldn’t get a job as a lawyer but I had tons of experience in retail, having worked for several large U.K. retailers, which were just as sophisticated as anything in Canada. Yet, I couldn’t get a job in retail. It was as if people had this medieval view of Scotland and believed there were no roads, electricity or computers there.
Some people even denied I could have experienced any kind of difficulty coming from Scotland, due to another ridiculous stereotype — that people from the U.K. receive preferential treatment even over those born and educated in Canada. That’s simply not true.
Eventually, someone did take pity on me and gave me a job packing calendars for $7 an hour. I moved up very quickly from there but I really had to start at the bottom and I had a pretty hard time getting my foot in the door. Some of that was due to the economy, some due to ignorance, but a lot was due to outright hostility towards someone perceived as an outsider — or, worse yet, someone who left Canada to try his luck abroad for a few years.
On the education front, I completed certificates in law and business management from a Canadian university, along with a postgraduate program in human resources, my certified human resources professional (CHRP) designation and a master’s degree focusing on employment law from an English university. However, when I applied to have my qualifications evaluated for advanced standing towards becoming a lawyer in Canada, I was granted absolutely no exemptions. If I wanted to become a lawyer, I’d have to complete three years of law school.
Anyway, don’t feel too sorry for me — I landed on my feet and I’m doing something I really enjoy. It combines everything I like to do: HR, employment law, writing, editing, marketing, technology and people management. I even have two lawyers and two HR professionals reporting to me now.
My worry is more about all the really bright, well-educated people with great backgrounds and experiences from other countries who aren’t getting the chances they deserve. My hope is someone reading this will remember my story and give an internationally educated professional a chance to gain some valuable Canadian work experience.
Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.