Giving newcomers a chance

The role of employers and immigrants in the settlement process

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

We’ve all heard stories about the proverbial physicians, PhDs and engineers from other countries forced to drive taxis or work in coffee shops or fast food outlets. Many newcomers experience discrimination and challenges relating to their lack of Canadian experience and qualifications even where the evidence tends to suggest they should be highly employable in this country.

Rather than viewing skilled immigrants as a relatively untapped source of talent and a competitive advantage due to their knowledge of foreign markets, languages, cultures and business practices, a large proportion of employers turn away candidates who lack Canadian experience or those whose international educational and professional qualifications are different or unfamiliar to them.

According to some studies, newcomers are taking longer to settle and obtain suitable employment than was the case with previous generations of immigrants. This is in spite of the fact that immigrants on average tend to be better educated than those born in Canada.

The problem with refusing to consider candidates due to their lack of Canadian experience is it not only artificially narrows an organization’s talent pool but could also be illegal. In the absence of a valid and legally defensible bona fide occupational requirement, employers are prohibited from discriminating against candidates on the basis of race, religion, national or ethnic origin.

In many cases, this includes excluding candidates who lack Canadian experience. The Ontario Human Rights Commission even developed a policy around this.

While this does not mean employers can be forced to hire unqualified candidates, dispense with a valid job requirement for fluency in English or French or hire a candidate from abroad who doesn’t possess the credentials required to practice a licensed profession, organizations shouldn’t simply reject candidates without Canadian work experience or credentials out of hand. It’s also important not to reject newcomers simply because they’re overqualified because skilled immigrants may be required to take a job at a lower level than in their home country in order to obtain Canadian experience.

My father’s experience

While I have previously discussed my own experiences as an internationally educated professional (in spite of the fact I grew up in Canada), my father’s experience coming from the former Czechoslovakia was even more relevant (while I was born in Scotland and my mother was Scottish, my father is Czech).

Speaking very little English when he first arrived in Canada, my father was forced to work as a delivery driver for years before returning to college to retrain as a computer programmer – a job he held in Prague after graduating from university with a masters degree. I remember how tough things were for him when he was driving a bakery truck for a living because he would get up around 4 a.m. to go to work and often wouldn’t return home until after midnight. It was also a physically demanding job because he had to lift heavy trays of bread.

While my father knew instinctively that he needed to improve his English and update his skills before returning to his former profession, he accepted things the way they were and worked hard to support our family. But when a health scare forced him to change careers, he jumped at the chance to go back to school to complete a year-long intensive program in computer programming. However, I don’t think he would have done it if he didn’t feel confident about his English.

After all, this was a man who decided to move out of a house with other Czechs when he first came to Canada so he could learn English more quickly. In the end, he did well in his college program and actually got one of the highest marks in his class in communications.

The moral of the story is newcomers often need to be prepared to learn the language and possibly retrain before getting back into their fields. Few of them will be able to “hit the ground running” immediately upon landing in Canada. They may need to improve their English or French, gain a better understanding of Canadian culture, values and business practices and be prepared to start at a lower level than they were accustomed to back home.

While employers need to be more welcoming of newcomers, in many ways it’s a two-way street with immigrants having to be prepared to work hard and even make some sacrifices in order to get ahead.

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