Ottawa asks why skilled immigrants drive cabs

Professional bodies say they are helping, critics say there is a long way to go

Ottawa is taking yet another step to try and increase the supply of skilled immigrant labour into the Canadian workforce — including a call for professional regulatory bodies to improve the process for foreign credential recognition.

Through March and April the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration will be holding hearings across the country seeking, among other things, answers to why so many internationally trained professionals still struggle to find work in their fields in Canada.

This is a very complex issue involving many different government departments, both federal and provincial, and hundreds of licensing bodies, said Andrew Telegdi, chair of the committee and Member of Parliament for Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. But it is important to raise the issues, get people talking and see what Ottawa can do, he said.

“This is a problem and it has been with us for a long time,” he said. “There have been some minor improvements, but essentially the problem is still with us.”

Solutions won’t happen overnight, but momentum is building. For the most part, all stakeholders are willing to work together, he said. “We are all in agreement so now we have to find a way of making it happen or we will not be able to compete for immigrants.”

The committee released a series of questions to frame the discussions on credential recognition:

•The committee wants a process that helps immigrants obtain the Canadian equivalency for foreign professional and trade credentials. What would such a process look like in each profession or trade?

•What are the costs and challenges of implementing such a process? In which occupational fields has there been progress with respect to skills and credential recognition?

•Are problems in labour force integration evidence of shortcomings in Canada’s immigration programs? If so, what changes should be made to federal policies relating to skilled worker recruitment?

•Do other countries offer better models for the integration of newcomers?

In recent years, amid claims of acute labour shortages in some professions, many “doctor driving taxicab” stories have emerged about professionals unable to find work in their field. Typically, their international experience and education were not recognized in Canada — at least not without a great deal of time, effort and expense.

A ‘stranglehold’

Though there are many possible reasons, including language barriers and employer demands for Canadian experience, a finger of blame is often pointed at the licensing bodies of self-regulated professions that control the entry of new people into the profession.

“Professional bodies have a stranglehold on the process,” said Howard Greenberg, a partner specializing in immigration law with the Toronto-based human resources law firm Greenberg Turner.

It doesn’t matter if Ottawa wants to throw the doors for skilled workers wide open, the professional bodies must do more to make it possible for those people to find work in their fields.

“If you are looking at if we have made progress over the last five years, you would see the licensing bodies trying,” he said. “But if you look at it from an immigrant perspective — which is, ‘How fast can I get up and running?’ — you would see that the system is still incredibly slow and inefficient,” he added.

“Professional bodies should create some interim licensing procedures so that new workers can perform the majority of their job duties and be compensated accordingly,” suggested Greenberg.

Rather than full apprenticeships, professional bodies could be exploring the possibility of partial apprenticeships, he said. “If you put someone in a taxicab and tell him he’ll get his engineering credentials after a lengthy apprenticeship or internship, he is not going to get out of the cab. It is human nature. He’s paying the bills.”

Easier for engineers

On the other hand, he noted, it’s an improvement over past years that the engineering bodies will let anyone enter directly into an apprenticeship.

In fact, the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers is one of the groups often credited with making real improvements to the credential recognition system for internationally trained workers. The CCPE represents 12 provincial and territorial engineering associations and more than 160,000 professional engineers.

Since January 2003, the CCPE has been leading an initiative to find new ways to help internationally trained or educated engineers integrate into the Canadian workforce. Called From Consideration to Integration (FC2I), the initiative includes participants from the federal and provincial governments, the engineering regulatory bodies, employers, immigrant-serving organizations, educators and engineers from Canada and abroad.

“Our regulatory bodies were getting lots of phone calls and questions and unhappy applicants,” said Deborah Wolfe, CCPE director of education, outreach and research. “We knew this was a priority.”

Among other things, the CCPE carefully reviewed the requirements for credential recognition. “We were asking, is there stuff that we are doing that is an unnecessary barrier?” she said. “But keeping in mind that we couldn’t lower our standards.” The process produced 17 recommendations to improve the integration process. (For more on this initiative go to www.ccpe.ca/fc2i/e/index.cfm.)

Among some of the changes already introduced is a provisional licence offered to applicants who meet all of the requirements but lack the required year of Canadian experience.

Protectionist tendencies

Still, one former engineer, now working as an immigration and workplace diversity consultant, said that although CCPE says it is trying to improve the process, its members aren’t always ready for change.

There is a wide variation in how the professional bodies have responded, said Lionel Laroche. Some, like the CCPE, have been very good at making improvements to the credential recognition process, he added. But some have members opposed to easier entry standards because they don’t want the supply of labour to outstrip the job supply. He recalls that at one meeting of the Professional Engineers of Ontario, a former leader of the group actually said, “Our profession is not for sale.” In other words, immigrants were driving down salaries, said Laroche.

“Some associations behave more or less like unions,” said Laroche. “For all practical purposes their approach to immigration is that it is a source of competition for jobs that drives the salaries of their members down and fundamentally they are trying to avoid that.”

But John Farrow doesn’t believe that for a second. As CEO of Markham, Ont.-based Lea International, an engineering consulting firm that hires many foreign-trained engineers, he sees self-interest and protectionism as a minor factor.

“Professional organizations have a mandate delegated to them by governments to manage their profession and therefore ensure the people who go into the profession are able to look after the public’s interest — that is, design bridges that won’t fall down,” he said.

“Probably 80 per cent of what the professional organizations do is follow through on that mandate (to protect the public). And 20 per cent is ideas that people come up with that are good for the profession, but not particularly good for people trying to get into the country.” Some of the requirements for documentation of work experience can be a bit difficult, he said.

“I think that part of the problem is that these are not user-friendly organizations,” he said. They are not very service-oriented and they spend much of their time and energy ensuring standards are sufficiently and rightfully high, but not enough time or effort helping people through the process. “They are even difficult for native born Canadians to deal with,” he added.

For example, foreign workers coming to the country shouldn’t be surprised by the standards, he said. “It might be pie in the sky,” he admited, but it might improve the situation if the professional bodies could do a better job of reaching out to prospective immigrants: educating prospective immigrants more thoroughly about what credential recognition will entail and then offering more assistance to help those through the process should they still choose to try.

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