Credit due for foreign credentials
Canada wooed these immigrants for their skills and education. Now they want a job in their field
Within days of arriving in Canada from his native India, Sanjay Lekhi, a pharmacist by training, got his first job in this country serving coffee at a Tim Hortons coffee shop in the sprawling suburb of Mississauga, just west of Toronto. He worked the night shift because it paid $1 more an hour, and as Mr. Lekhi will tell you, “a new immigrant needs money.” He quickly moved on, first to a job in a drug store and then to a drug manufacturing firm, sometimes holding down two jobs at once, sleeping in short snatches between shifts. “It was,” he remembers, “a most difficult time.”
Once he was more financially secure, he began to prepare for a series of exams required to work as a licensed pharmacist. The first two he passed easily. The third, an oral exam that simulated work situations, he failed twice.
Discouraged, he didn’t know where to turn to next.
Then he discovered a program for foreign-trained pharmacists offered by the University of Toronto. It seemed ideal. The 16-week program is designed to assist international pharmacy graduates like Mr. Lekhi meet Canadian practice standards and licensing requirements. The hefty $13,000 tuition bill was picked up by a company which operates a chain of drug stores in exchange for a two-year work contract.
Now a licensed pharmacist, Mr. Lekhi, who will turn 34 in November, looks back at the past five years with a mix of bitter and sweet emotions. “I had no idea how much I would be struggling in Canada,” he says, adding that his wife and two young children suffered too. At the same time, he’s immensely proud of his accomplishments, and says he owes everything to U of T’s international pharmacy graduate program for making him what he is today.
Most newcomers to this country aren’t nearly as lucky as Mr. Lekhi. Although immigrants are more highly educated than Canadian-born workers, they earn far less. Census figures show that of the 805,000 immigrants aged 25 to 54 who came to Canada during the 1990s, almost twice as many had a university degree as Canadians in the same age group (40 percent vs. 23 percent). Yet in 2000, recent male immigrants earned 25 percent less than Canadian-born workers and 15 percent less than immigrants who’d arrived 20 years earlier.
Also, in previous decades the income gap between immigrants and Canadian-born workers was eliminated more quickly. In 1980, male immigrants who’d been in the country 10 years earned as much as Canadian-born men. By 2000 they were earning just 80 cents for each dollar earned by Canadian-born workers. Those with a university degree were faring worse, earning 71 cents on the dollar earned by Canadian-born university-educated males, down from 86 cents in the previous decade.
Any way you look at it, “our immigration program is seriously broken,” concludes Jeffrey Reitz, the R. F. Harney Professor of Ethnic, Immigration and Pluralism Studies at the University of Toronto.
“Immigrants,” he says, “have encountered more and more difficulties in getting jobs, and the jobs they get aren’t as good as the ones that immigrants coming to Canada 20 or 25 years ago were getting. This is despite the fact that we have been selecting immigrants more carefully in terms of educational qualifications, language ability and all the things that are thought to improve their employment prospects.”
Dr. Reitz figures this downward spiral is the result of a shift to a knowledge economy. In earlier decades, immigrants were often recruited for their willingness to do manual labour, and employers barely glanced at their credentials or previous work experience. Today both immigrant and Canadian-born workers require credentials to find employment. And in this new job market “immigrants are playing with a devalued currency,” argues Dr. Reitz, because Canadian employers simply don’t recognize foreign degrees and work experience. At the same time, native-born Canadians are getting more education, creating more competition for jobs and giving employers fewer reasons to take a chance on immigrant workers.
So, skilled immigrants end up with low-paying jobs to support their families. According to one estimate, six out of 10 skilled immigrants work in occupations different from those they were trained for abroad. Often they work as security guards, taxi drivers, janitors. The Conference Board of Canada estimates the loss of income at $5 billion a year for immigrants and others who are unemployed or underemployed because their credentials aren’t adequately recognized.
The regulatory bodies of various professions and occupations are often blamed for creating barriers for foreign-trained professionals, but Dr. Reitz argues that onerous regulatory processes may work in immigrants’ favour – at least they set out clearly defined criteria and procedures for licensing and employment. In non-regulated fields, that kind of road map doesn’t exist.
Naomi Alboim, a fellow and adjunct professor at Queen’s University’s school of policy studies, believes Canadian employers discount immigrants’ education and experience because they aren’t familiar with foreign universities and they find it difficult to obtain work references from abroad. “From the employer’s perspective, immigrants are a high-risk venture,” she says. “And employers are notoriously risk averse.”
Many Canadian groups and agencies, including postsecondary institutions, assess foreign credentials, both academic and work-related, but Ms. Alboim says the system is complex and often creates confusion for employers.
On the other hand, she notes optimistically that the issue of recognizing foreign credentials has never before been as central to public debate as it is today.
In April the federal government unveiled a $300-million initiative to help integrate foreign-trained workers. The money will go to several areas: beefing up services that assess foreign academic and workplace credentials; providing job-specific language training, internship and mentoring programs; and revamping the government’s Going to Canada Web site to provide job-market information in a more timely fashion.
Ottawa also eased restrictions on international students studying at Canadian universities and colleges, allowing them to work off campus part-time while in school and extending the time they may remain and work in Canada after graduation, to give them a chance to gain Canadian work experience should they choose to stay. The House of Commons immigration committee is holding hearings on foreign credentials recognition, to see what more the federal government can do.
Provincial governments also play a role. They fund an array of work training programs, often delivered through universities and colleges. The Ontario government, for example, funds some 35 career-bridging programs (including U of T’s pharmacy program) for foreign-trained professionals and trades people. (Please see the box on page 24, “What’s on offer at universities.”)
For the most part, these university programs have been a success. Virtually all participants in Ryerson University’s program for foreign-trained midwives have earned licences to practice in Ontario; 97 percent of foreign-trained pharmacists who completed U of T’s program passed the licensing exams (before the program was introduced, the failure rate among foreign-trained pharmacists was 70 percent).
What’s more, employers trust the results, says Ms. Alboim. “They are very happy when someone else will give the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”
Postsecondary schools provide other services for foreign-trained workers, too. Many of them assess foreign academic credentials and work experience so that applicants can gain exemptions or advanced standing in degree and diploma programs, such as nursing. Canadian Virtual University, a consortium of universities offering online degrees, helps immigrants judge how their foreign degrees may be applied towards a Canadian degree at its member institutions. Campus Canada, another consortium of universities and colleges, is trying to find ways of streamlining the complex assessment process for foreign credentials and qualifications.
Community colleges are particularly active. They offer bridging programs for foreign-trained professionals and trades people and language assessment and training services. Some colleges offer counselling and arrange for work placements and co-op work terms for immigrant students. The Association of Canadian Community Colleges surveyed its members last year and used the results to develop an easy-to-use page on its Web site with a comprehensive list of programs and services that immigrants can access at colleges, institutes and Cégeps.
The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada is conducting a survey of its 91 member institutions to create an inventory of the programs and services on offer and to identify good practices. Next year, AUCC plans to convene a policy roundtable, bringing together university presidents and registrars with officials from government, regulatory and professional bodies and credential assessment agencies. The goal is to “see how we can move forward effectively in this area,” says Claire Morris, AUCC’s president.
Mrs. Morris cautions that it’s a complex issue that universities cannot solve alone. It requires the cooperation of many players, including postsecondary institutions, employers and several tiers of governments – no easy feat. But she says everyone now realizes “that we just can’t afford any more to have all this untapped talent.”
One ambitious project would see overseas campuses of Canadian colleges and universities offering some services (such as assessing fluency in English or French and assessing academic credentials) to immigrants once they’ve been accepted but before they leave their home countries for Canada. Following a roundtable consultation with 47 organizations, the Association of Canadian Community Colleges has submitted a business plan to the federal government for possible project funding.
“When you look at what’s happening [in Canada],” says Nejat Gorica, ACCC’s vice-president, business development and technical cooperation, “with thousands of professionals who are unable to access their work of life for which they were trained, the time wasted, the disappointment, we certainly think it will be a worthwhile investment.”
On a smaller scale, the Council of Ontario Universities, through its partnerships division, recently identified the barriers that foreign-trained professionals face in accessing university programs and services. This fall it hopes to fund several pilot projects at Ontario universities putting in place systemic changes (to the registration process, for example) that would make it easier for immigrants to apply for programs.
All worthy efforts, says Ms. Alboim. But there’s plenty more postsecondary institutions could do. She says the current bridging programs, while effective, reach too few people and sometimes require two years of additional and often unnecessary training.
Ms. Alboim would like to see tailored courses designed for immigrants and others to fill a few specific gaps in their education or workplace training, offered along with co-op options and work placements. And she would like to see the courses offered as part of a university’s core programs, rather than part of their continuing education programs. “This is a new, very substantial client group that should be dealt with in the mainstream of the university,” she says.
Granted, there aren’t many financial incentives available to encourage universities to respond to the needs of foreign-trained professionals. But, adds Ms. Alboim, neither do universities seem to view this as a top priority.
“Universities, with some notable exceptions, have not been significant players. Community colleges tend to be much more nimble, much more entrepreneurial, much more responsive to changing needs. Generally speaking, universities have tended to see their role less as preparing people for the labour market and more as [providing] excellence in education.”
Alastair Summerlee, president of the University of Guelph, agrees that universities could do more, but he argues that innovation would come with more financing. “This is not a question of universities dragging their feet,” he says, while acknowledging that it may look that way to some. “It’s that the universities don’t have the human resources to be able to do this.” When financial incentives are in place, “I think [universities] will jump for them.”
He points out other challenges besides money. Universities, when they introduce bridging programs for foreign-trained professionals, are sometimes accused of throwing up roadblocks and their efforts are often met with anger by applicants who have nowhere else to vent their frustration, he says.
Marie Rocchi Dean, program manager of U of T’s international pharmacy graduate program, can attest to the efforts needed to develop such a program and have it accepted. Initially, she says, there was resistance from some groups that saw the program as another barrier, partly due to high tuition fees. The success rate of its participants has helped overcome that. But even now at U of T, the program gets mixed views: some see it as taking away spaces from Canadian students or using up scarce resources. (The program has grown to include mentoring, peer-support and language training, and for students without a corporate sponsor, the university has arranged for a loans program with a major bank.) “It takes time,” she says. “It has to be done in a subtle way” so it isn’t seen to be depleting resources.
Don DeVoretz, economics professor and co-director of the Centre of Excellence on Immigration Studies at Simon Fraser University, agrees that more government funding would help, but says that other, broader issues need to be addressed.
“The fundamental question,” he says, “is why did we entice these people to come here knowing very well they had zero chance of getting a job.” He says governments ought to be more forthright with prospective immigrants about their job prospects in Canada.
As for Mr. Lekhi, the Toronto-area pharmacist from India, he admits that even had he known what difficulties and hardships lay ahead, he still would have come, so determined was he to start a new life in Canada. As it turned out, he was promoted last year to manage the pharmacy he’s working in. He still can’t forget how much U of T, especially Ms. Rocchi Dean, has done for him. When he tries to express his gratitude, words fail him. “They have given me so much,” he says, his voice faltering slightly. “Even your friends and close relatives don’t do that much.”