While conducting research for my recent doctoral study focused on better understanding the labour market experiences of racialized skilled immigrants in Canada, one of my research participants said, “Canada is selling a false bill of goods to foreign-trained professionals.” Further to the above candid statement, this individual, with decades of work experience in the migration field, added, “This problem will never be solved until we begin to own it as a Canadian problem and not just see it as an immigrant issue.”
I could not agree more. My insights are based not only on what I have seen through a research lens but also on my experiences of nearly fifteen years working on the frontlines with internationally educated immigrants and newcomers, as well as with employers. Additionally, carrying my own stories of lived experiences helps as it further deepens my understanding of this issue.
However divergent the stories of immigrants and newcomers may be, broadly speaking, most new entrants come to Canada in pursuit of meaningful economic and educational opportunities, as well as the desire to create better lives for their families. There are several pathways for foreign-trained professionals to migrate to Canada as permanent residents in the economic class. They may apply through visa categories like Express Entry, the Federal Skilled Worker Program (FSWP) or Canadian Experience Class (CEC), as well as the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP). There are additional options to immigrate via the economic class using the Business Visa stream. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada has expanded immigration targets to welcome over 400,000 new immigrants each year, from 2022 to 2024. Perhaps, this may actually be because of the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the need to accelerate economic growth to facilitate post-pandemic recovery.
“Among the multifaceted challenges Qualified Immigrants face are unemployment and underemployment and long wait times for completing credential assessment and licensing processes.”
With the prospect of such high numbers being added to the current pool of Qualified Immigrants (QIs) already in Canada, it has become even more important to highlight the notion of “failed promises of migration,” as well as to learn from these empirical realities. This could help us advocate for the creation of conditions that can help this cohort achieve “better” socioeconomic outcomes in the future. The multi-layered barriers well-qualified migrants face in integrating into the Canadian job market are particularly complex. This is true for both men and women, though for women even more so, as noted in the recent report by the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC). The aspirations of QIs are high and their target employment is more specific. For a majority, their job market goals are to find work either in their areas of expertise and experience or at least in closely aligned occupations. Among the multifaceted challenges Qualified Immigrants face are unemployment and underemployment and long wait times for completing credential assessment and licensing processes – the need to take bridging and other educational courses as well as passing qualifying exams before they can be eligible to apply for many positions. There are many other challenges.
Many of the processes Qualified Immigrants have to navigate are ambiguous, non-transparent, long-winded and time-consuming, with additional financial resources needed for completing many of them. Being successful in meeting these requirements while working in survival jobs to make ends meet often results in deskilling and loss of precious time for newcomers. This leads to long-term negative impacts on the settlement of the family as a unit. The inability to self-actualize leads Individuals to experience discouragement and frustration, feel low self-esteem and a loss of identity, resulting in mental health challenges. It is important to note that with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as an additional backdrop to this discussion, new conditions have emerged that further exacerbate inequities as well as mental health challenges for newcomers, immigrants and refugees. Social isolation has caused some population groups to become more vulnerable than they previously were, like racialized women and other marginalized groups like asylum seekers. Further, distinctions between “high and low skills” have been blurred, and COVID-19 times have also led us to reimagine who the “essential worker” really is.
Another huge barrier skilled immigrants face, especially if they are racialized, is the complicated web of discriminatory hiring practices. The hidden job market ignores the available human capital these economic immigrants bring to Canada with them. Instead, it prioritizes social capital, soft skills and cultural (and linguistic) fit. Glaring gaps have been highlighted in the healthcare sector, for example, with pandemic stories revealing systemic fragilities and long wait times to receive emergency care across Canada. Why aren’t there any accelerated and sustainable policy frameworks that could help utilize the human resource we already have in the country: internationally educated health professionals (IEHPs)? Clearly, structural complexities exist, and the presence of multiple players in the field, like credentialing and regulatory bodies, all levels of government, educational institutions and employers, to name a few, makes it near impossible for stakeholders to work together and find common ground for creating good solutions in the interest of all parties.
“Policymakers must provide clear-cut and straightforward processes to create direct and linear integration pathways for highly educated immigrants.”
Is it not unconscionable that the point system within immigration policy – the centrepiece of the selection process for “talent acquisition” in the economic class — plays no policy role in looking ahead to the next stage: the post-selection milestone in the immigrant migration and integration journey? When it is common knowledge that immigration policy in Canada is a means of addressing the country’s demographic challenges, posed by an aging workforce and low population growth, policymakers must provide clear-cut and straightforward processes to create direct and linear integration pathways for highly educated immigrants. Canada should accelerate this, especially in sectors where there is a dire need and help immigrants achieve timely success in their labour market objectives. Surely, if this were to happen, it would be a win-win scenario both for the individual and the state. As noted in the paper “Immigrant Skill Utilization: Trends and Policy Issues” (2012) by researchers Jeffrey G. Reitz, Josh Curtis and Jennifer Elrick, there is a significant cost to not doing this. Due to immigrant skill underutilization, the value of work lost to the Canadian economy has grown from about $4.8 billion annually in 1996 to about $11.37 billion in 2006.
Certainly, the immigrant settlement sector exists to support immigrants and newcomers, but is it being utilized by all for whom it might be beneficial? What might the barriers be, for those in the category under discussion here who do not use it? Among cohorts of skilled professionals, individuals are hesitant to use immigrant settlement services as they believe they do not fulfill their specific needs. On top of that, many are unaware of their existence. More importantly, we must also question how easy and realistic it is to objectively do an in-depth evaluation of the sector’s efficiency and ability to fulfill the specific needs of heterogeneous cohorts of immigrants in this category.
“Among cohorts of skilled professionals, individuals are hesitant to use immigrant settlement services as they believe they do not fulfill their specific needs.”
Although the above discussion is primarily diagnostic as it is problem-centric and not solution-focused, wrapped up in the “discussion of the problem” are also suggestions of where we might go to seek solutions. Given the multifaceted nature of the problem, its solutions are likely to come from many places. For instance, obvious gaps exist in the system like skills mismatch. This makes it difficult for the right people to come in contact with each other in a timely manner, namely, job seekers in a variety of sectors who have the skills and experience needed by employers and recruiters. Perhaps, many gaps can be addressed through targeted training on the job as individuals have transferable skills. Much of this is happening but we must ask if it is enough and how we can do better.
One of my research findings, based on the experiences of participants who had been in the country longer than five years but were continuing to struggle in transition jobs, was that many immigrants wished Canada ensured a ”smoother landing” for them. Many also wanted better access to transparent information that might have prepared them more optimally for the ground reality they found on their arrival here. Another recommendation consistently made by those who experienced these challenges firsthand and over the long term was that policymakers need to create conditions for collaboration among stakeholders, putting in place coordinated services for support and integration. Canada should also implement early internship opportunities on arrival in sectors that are aligned with immigrants’ expertise and experience. If these are seen as training opportunities that pay entry-level wages, then well-qualified newcomers would not be compelled to take up unrelated jobs for survival such as in call centers or end up working as security guards or healthcare aides.
Further, creating accountability mechanisms that compel credentialing bodies and licensing agencies (particularly bad actors among them) to work collaboratively would ensure a holistic approach to addressing systemic barriers. Some of the above recommendations, if integrated into policy measures, would remove intractable barriers that internationally educated professionals currently face and better enable them to contribute to the Canadian economy in a timely manner. This should definitely happen before they lose their will, ability and skills to do so.