Skills and education of immigrants wasted: report

Recognizing the foreign credentials of immigrants would ease Canada’s skills shortage, boost productivity and add billions of dollars to the economy annually, a new report states.

As many as 550,000 people in Canada have education and experience that is going unrecognized, says Michael Bloom, co-author of the Conference Board of Canada’s report, Brain Gain. The problem includes both immigrants looking for work in their chosen fields, and other Canadians who are “underemployed” because their skills are not being put to use by their employers. Addressing the issue could turn Canada’s brain drain into brain gain, increasing the ranks of skilled workers by 83,000.

“We’ve talked about the brain drain where we lose people to the U.S. and elsewhere, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently, and while they’re gone they are creating value elsewhere,” says Bloom. “Recognizing actual learning and knowledge could result in a brain gain.”

The study estimates $4.1 billion to $5.9 billion in wages would be added to the economy if Canadian businesses used employees to their maximum ability.

Bloom says when it comes to foreign credentials, employers are cautious because they don’t know how these credentials hold up against Canadian standards. “So talented people crowd the bottom of the income ladder instead of contributing their knowledge to their economy,” he says.

Many of these people are unemployed because they don’t have a degree from an accredited Canadian university. Bloom says employers look for a Canadian degree on resumes and use this as the first screening tool when hiring, excluding immigrants that have a degree from their home country or years of foreign work experience. During the recruitment process, employers rely heavily on Canadian credentials to monitor job applicants. Employers have confidence in credentials from Canadian institutions and licencing systems, which is why those without such qualifications can end up slipping through the cracks, he says

In the survey, conducted by Bloom and Michael Grant, employers expressed concerns that relying on foreign credentials can lead to hiring mistakes. Another concern is that it takes too much time and money to verify foreign learning.

“Employers have typically been risk-averse and they tend to focus on the business they know best,” says Bloom.

Immigrants are the largest group to suffer from not being recognized and rewarded, however there is also a large number of Canadian workers — the underemployed — whose experience and education are not being put to use by their employers. If an employee’s prior learning goes unnoticed, it leaves little room for advancement and that can play a role in worker dissatisfaction, the report states.

Bloom and Grant say the problem exists because there are no national standards for evaluating, creating and transferring prior learning credentials between jurisdictions, education institutions and workplaces.

“Employers haven’t really been aware of these issues and the possibilities. They haven’t realized the benefits they can gain.” Underutilized employees can contribute “more innovation, more productivity and more profit,” for the company.

Employers can do a few things to improve their ability to recognize and value learning, says Bloom. They should build partnerships with public education so that the institution can either evaluate credentials or create them.

“When it comes to experiential learning, we have to build a more comprehensive and easy-to-use system for evaluating and credentialing learning in the workplace,” he says.

Another initiative employers can engage in is developing private credentials, which would enable businesses to create their own standards. It might only be possible for large companies but it is possible to create standards and credentials that would be widely recognized in the corporate community and at sectoral or national levels. Microsoft has already implemented credentials that have become recognized by numerous employers as reputable.

“One route is to go towards a thing like Microsoft Certification. It is universally accepted even though it is delivered by people in companies who have been certified by Microsoft as well. So you can take the program delivered by Microsoft and you could become a ‘user’ or a ‘techie,’ there are different levels, but you end up with this certification.”

Bloom wants employers to think outside the box when creating recognition learning programs and says a national credentialing system is possible if it is a co-operative effort between the government, employers and educators. (B.C. has created a system on its own, see box this page.)

“It has to be something that people have a will to create among themselves. Australia has gone a long way in that direction (national credentialing system) so the international trend is more towards holistic systems and we need to move to match the world.”

Howard Greenberg, a specialist in immigration law, says creating a national credentialing system is a good idea.

“The extent that immigration has been a pre-screen because it screens people out who might not have met artificial requirements set by our system — that will be removed. The result will be that many more people will arrive here with education and careers, which they may want to resume.”

Greenberg says because of this relaxed selection process, Canada’s licencing bodies have to get their act together. They have to recognize the wealth of talent coming into Canada while maintaining Canadian standards. Although Greenberg hasn’t seen any major change in this area, government bodies are looking into these issues.

SIDEBAR

B.C. offers credentialing template

British Columbia is matching the world when it comes to credentialing.

The Open Learning Agency (OLA), created by the B.C. government, is dedicated to giving individuals recognition for non-traditional learning, and it works with communities and employers to achieve this. The agency offers an International Credential Evaluation Service, awarding recognition and credit for foreign education and training. Once an assessment has been made, clients are able to apply for jobs without the fear of being rejected by employers for not meeting Canadian standards.

Recently, OLA created a new service, the Canadian Learning Bank, which allows people to use their on-the-job experience towards the completion of a university degree. Their knowledge and skills are assessed and certain credits will be given based on this review. Individuals can use this system to upgrade or to change career paths. Thirteen universities and community colleges in B. C. have already accepted the credit evaluations. The Learning Bank is working on involving more companies that deliver private training to their employees.

Michael Bloom, co-author of the Conference Board of Canada’s Brain Gain report on the subject, says there is some concern from employers that by credentialing employees, they are opening the door to high turnover, but he adds this doesn’t have to be the case.

“It’s a possibility you are going to get some turnover, but the heightened sense of job satisfaction and loyalty (that comes from learning recognition) is worth more than the employee putting themselves back into the job market. If you under-employ them, they are more likely to leave.

“By recognizing learning you make sure people are properly employed, they have the opportunity for improvement, and you don’t waste time and resources on the wrong training and education,” Bloom says. “Instead you spend the money building on what they really know and can do.”

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