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Canada must stop wasting the talent of skilled immigrants

Neoliberal democracies around the world see Canada as a leader in economic immigration.

The merit-based immigration system has been used to fill labor shortages and has been a key solution to the country’s aging population and, recently, post-pandemic economic recovery.

We recently undertook a Photovoice project, Walk in my shoes, with recent immigrants who shared their experiences of obtaining professional employment in Durham, Ontario, through photographs and interviews illustrating their lives. The goal of the project was to explore their experiences, identify gaps in employment services, and ask skilled immigrants to suggest solutions to those gaps.

Integration into the labor market?

There is a broad consensus in society that the integration of immigrants into the labor market is the most critical indicator of their success in their new country of origin. However, the deskilling and underemployment of immigrants are well documented.

This photo, titled “The Other Side”, is meant to depict the challenges and opportunities that one of the study participants, Bushra, encountered while looking for a job.
(Bushra), Author provided

Perceiving immigrants as being unable to have their credentials recognized by professional bodies in Canada and their “cultural differences” as an obstacle to their successful professional development are part of the public opinion.

Research suggests that Canada’s skilled immigration policy is also based on the belief that professional degrees and credentials guide immigrants to career success in Canada.

However, the collective story of immigrants seeking professional employment (illustrated by a photograph of one of the participants, Bushra) suggests that while Canada has opened the door to some, “it only leads to a brick wall on the other side”.

A catch-22

One barrier to obtaining professional employment for those who have moved permanently to Canada – a country that claims to need their skills – is the lack of “Canadian experience”, a condition based on an elusive concept and often misused that tends to exclude and discriminate against racialized immigrants.

The requirement to have Canadian experience to be hired can only be acquired if one is hired. It is therefore not surprising that qualified immigrants experience an integration into the labor market that is devalued and relegated to precarious and dead-end jobs.

Our research suggests that the focus on the personal responsibility of skilled new immigrants for labor market integration minimizes the role of immigration policies and exclusionary attitudes towards them.

The need for volunteer services to demonstrate “compatibility” with the Canadian work environment, or the pervasiveness of the “start at the bottom” narrative as a rite of passage for those who have come to Canada with credentials and professional skills, was captured in the photographs and stories of our research participants.

One participant said that a settlement worker told them that the certification and licensing process was extremely complicated and time-consuming to discourage applicants, and that “[v]very few of our engineering clients go through the process successfully. The participant was then offered a survival job in a warehouse: “I realized that [the settlement worker] was absolutely right about the licensing process and the regulatory bodies, so I decided to burn my degree and start from scratch in a field I love.

Many skilled immigrants experience labor market integration difficulties as a personal failure and often plan to leave the country soon after arrival.

Those who remain routinely end up in dead-end jobs, many of them internalizing society’s narrative of their own inadequacy.

Some immigrants, however, do not lose sight of their pre-immigration accomplishments and understand the role of the system in their fate. One of our participants said:

“I feel like red wine inside [that] bottle. [The] wine with a complex taste. Where I come from, I was infused with training, skills and experience – and felt well seasoned. I thought I was half full. Ready to offer what I have. But then the employers saw me as half-empty. Not bearing the “made in Canada” label, bearing no Canadian exposure. I needed to be retired and pass quality control despite having a wealth of experience.“

A glass of red wine in front of a bottle
One of the participants, FLS, took a photo of a bottle of wine to illustrate his experience trying to find a job in Canada.
(FSL), Author provided

Go beyond the job search

The government’s response to the gap between the potential of skilled immigrants and their professional integration often includes “job-seeking training” programs.

Although an important part of labor market integration, the use of training and following the rules did not prevent our study participants from being judged, treated with suspicion, ghosted by recruiters. and employers or outright exploited during their internships or volunteer efforts.

So, do professional education and credentials lead to successful integration of skilled immigrants? In short, no.

It is clear that we need to challenge the way we think about the employment integration of skilled immigrants and remove barriers such as the “Canadian experience” requirement. We also need to stop expecting immigrants to be resilient to the challenges they face and look for solutions to problems that no one should need resilience to survive in the first place.

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