Recession hit hard, recovery came slow for immigrants

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 – Globe and Mail
ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY and TAVIA GRANT

As employment grows with a reviving economy, so does the unemployment gap between the country’s highly educated newcomers and their Canadian counterparts.

Among university graduates, recent immigrants were hit hardest by the recession, and new research shows they’re still at a disadvantage compared to Canadian-born university grads as the job market picks up.

The employment gap between newcomers and people born in Canada is greatest among those with the highest credentials and educational backgrounds, according to a Community Foundations of Canada report to be released on Tuesday.

In some cases, it’s an issue of lacking the Canadian credentials or licences needed to work in their specialized fields; in others, employers – especially those just starting to hire again after two years of downturn – are wary of the unknown and shy away from assessing foreign credentials.

Canada’s struggle to absorb and economically integrate its most potentially valuable newcomers hits the country hard on myriad fronts: There’s the upfront cost of more people on EI and social assistance; but the productivity costs annually of failing to capitalize on the skills of Canadian immigrants runs as high as $5-billion nationally, according to the Conference Board of Canada.

The gaps are largest in the two provinces that have seen the most recent job growth: The Community Foundations report said that recent immigrants with university degrees in Alberta were four times more likely to be unemployed in 2009 than native Canadians and in Quebec were six times more likely.

At 2.9 per cent, Alberta has one of the country’s lowest unemployment rates for university-educated, Canadian-born residents, the report said. But for degree-toting recent immigrants, that rises to 11.5 per cent. In Quebec, almost one in five university-educated newcomers is unemployed.

In Toronto, the city that receives 45 per cent of the country’s immigrants, the unemployment rate for university-educated newcomers is 14 per cent – compared to 3.3 per cent for Canadian-born workers.

The people caught up in this phenomenon are the bright lights that Canada’s immigration system is set up to lure.

For Ebenezer Asare, the Canadian dream would mean working as a pharmacist at an Edmonton drugstore. But when he moved from Ghana in the summer of 2009 and tried to work while he got a Canadian license, even entry-level positions were off-limits: He had no Canadian experience.

Now he’s volunteering at Shoppers Drug Mart and taking bridging courses at Edmonton’s Bredin Institute. Most of the technical material is review – things he covered in the six years it took to be licensed as a pharmacist in Ghana, where he did quality-control for a company providing drugs for much of west Africa. If he can pass a 300-question multiple-choice exam next month, 30-year-old Mr. Asare just might get his license in a year or so.

“Now things look a bit brighter. … Once I’m through all this, I’ll be happy practising as a pharmacist.”

American Express Canada got religion on immigrant hiring last year: Nancy Steele, AmEx director of technologies, said managers kept getting requests from people working in the company’s call centre to transfer to IT because that was their training.

It was an odd, discomfiting moment, Ms. Steele says: Management had no idea how to treat foreign training.

“You have a bit of a discomfort and an uncomfortable feeling – you don’t know how to close [the gap between immigrants and non-immigrants] so you tend to veer away from that opportunity,” Ms. Steele said.

The company sought help from the Toronto Region Immigration Employment Council, which acts as a liaison between immigrants and employers.

The federal government is acting on this, said Ryan Sparrow, a spokesman for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley: While noting that licensing for many professions is a provincial issue, he pointed to the “Pan-Canadian Framework for the Assessment and Recognition of Foreign Qualifications” announced last year, meant to streamline foreign credential recognition for key professions.

But Canada seems slow to figure out that, while it meticulously selects skilled immigrants on one hand, it fails to get them jobs once they’re here. And the repercussions, as the country begins to rely almost entirely on immigration to grow its aging work force, are real.

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