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Skilled immigrants face tough job market

Lack of Canadian experience and other barriers bar easy entry
Preeti Hiro, an instructor at SFU’s continuing studies department: highly skilled immigrants often can’t find work that matches their abilities after arriving in Canada | Rob Kruyt

When Preeti Hiro came to Canada from India in November 2014, she already had a bachelor’s degree in commerce and a master of business administration and was a published author in the field of strategic financial management. Hiro also had an impressive resumé from back home in Chandigarh, which included working as an assistant professor and as a manager of finance. However, she encountered the catch-22 many immigrants get stuck in temporarily regardless of skill level or educational background. Hiro had no Canadian experience, which was the one thing she was looking for, and the one thing employers wanted to see on her resumé.

“I didn’t get a job for about four or five months,” said Hiro. “I would send out resumé after resumé and not hear anything back at all.”

Hiro, who is now a business instructor with Simon Fraser University’s continuing studies department and based in Surrey, said the struggles she faced are common among immigrants entering Canada. Newcomers tend to be more educated than their local counterparts; 41% of recent immigrants to Surrey had a bachelor’s degree or higher compared with 18% of Canadian-born citizens of the city, according to a Surrey Local Immigration Partnership (LIP) study. The unemployment rate is also much higher for immigrants to Surrey (13%) compared with locals (8%).

Hiro said during the months she couldn’t find work, she encountered a strange response from employers.

“A lot of the time they would say to me that I was overqualified for the job. And if I applied for a job that was within my experience and skill set, then they would say that I didn’t have enough Canadian experience.”

LIP, which is run by the City of Surrey, is hosting a Newcomer Employment Week (October 21-27), in part to promote better connections between employers and recent immigrants.

The event will include a Share Your Story presentation to raise employer awareness of new immigrants.

While new immigrants to Surrey are usually highly skilled or educated, their income levels fall below the city’s average. According to LIP, the average yearly wage for a recent immigrant is $34,763 compared with a local in Surrey who makes $41,357. But with a labour shortage looming and baby boomers heading into retirement, immigration is as much an economic as a social issue.

Patrick MacKenzie, CEO of the Immigrant Employment Council of BC, said immigrants are filling – and will continue to fill – a valuable hole in the workforce.

“Employers need to recognize that it is good business to tap into the talents, energy and global connections of newcomers to Canada,” he said. “With the typical Canadian today being 53 years old, and more people aged 65 and older than children, we must look to immigrants to help us grow and innovate.”

The issue is one the entire country is facing.

Well under a third of Canadian companies are promoting employees from within for positions that report directly to chief executive officers, a new study has found. The Conference Board of Canada’s latest annual Human Resources Trends and Metrics report also found that half of Canadian businesses see leadership development as their top human resources issue.

The Conference Board also estimates British Columbians could lose $7.9 billion in annual gross domestic product if the predicted labour shortage is not adequately reduced over the next 10 years.

According to LIP, Surrey is the chief contributor to Metro Vancouver’s overall growth rate. In about five years, immigrants will account for half of Surrey’s population growth; 30% of Metro Vancouver’s population growth already comes from Surrey.

MacKenzie added the catch-22 for immigrants is also a catch-22 for Metro Vancouver businesses, many of which are now having difficulty hiring locals for jobs that demand skilled or highly educated candidates.

One of the common knocks from employers against immigrants is that they need to be more forthcoming about what they do and don’t know about the task at hand, according to an LIP survey.

“To succeed, employers need help decoding the mystery of hiring newcomers and translating foreign experience to the local context,” MacKenzie said. “And immigrants need help preparing for life and work in Canada even before they arrive.” 

Hiro said she understands why she didn’t get hired as soon as she came to Canada – but that it doesn’t mean there can’t be work done to remedy the situation for future immigrants.

She said volunteering helped, as supervisors were willing to write reference letters after a few months, but  she understands many immigrants don’t have the financial means to work for free upon arrival.

Hiro did have some advice for employers who might be hesitant to hire an immigrant.

“I would say they could be diamonds in the dust,” she said. “So keep an open mind and have an analytical perspective so you can actually see the talent as it is.”•