A couple years ago when I was flying to Nairobi through Amsterdam with a friend, a lady sitting close to us struck up a conversation. She wanted to know where we were from and where we were going. It was her first time going back to her hometown since she had immigrated to Canada with her family. She joked about how she had bought a one-way ticket as she was just not willing to come back. Behind her laughter, you could sense the lingering despair and hopelessness (Africans are experts in using humour as a coping mechanism). Sadly, her story is one that very many immigrants can relate to.
Her husband had come across an advertisement looking for professional skilled persons to immigrate to Canada. As a civil engineer with extensive experience, he easily qualified and they made the move with hopes for better opportunities. They sold their properties and businesses, and moved to the ‘land of milk and honey’. But they found the milk bottle empty and the jar of honey dry like the Sahara, as they were told by several employers that their credentials and years of experience were not recognized here. Despite being a trained accountant who ran a successful business for years she also could not find a job due to lack of Canadian work experience. In order to support themselves, they had to take on lower paying jobs which they were overqualified for. The only benefit she saw in the move was that their children would get a Canadian education without the added cost of being international students and their prospects would be far much better.
Her story is not unique but rather a sad norm among many immigrants in North America. Many jobs here value Canadian specific training and it can be extremely challenging to get your ‘foot in the door’. Immigrants are forced to take jobs far below their qualifications further creating a sense of hopelessness and frankly a loss for the economy because valuable skills are being under-utilized. When you have worked hard only to be told that your skills and credentials are not valid, you may feel stressed and devalued and which can have negative effects on your mental health. In addition, being new and not having a social support network from family and friends makes it worse.
Imagine moving with great excitement and anticipation, dreaming of all the possibilities marketed to you only for your dreams to be shattered upon arrival. Statistics show that unemployment and underemployment rates are usually double for newcomers. In Canada, only one in four foreign-educated immigrants work in jobs that match their qualifications.
There’s no doubt that the system is fraught with difficulties and it may take time, perseverance and patience before you can settle into your intended career. Here are a couple options to explore:
1. There are services that may be able to translate your credentials for university admissions, employers and licensing boards. In Canada and the US, World Education Services (WES) evaluates and advocates recognition of international education qualifications.
2. Network, Network, Network! A lot of immigrants are usually referred to employment agencies but these are very limited in the opportunities available as they place more focus on low-skilled labor jobs. Talk to anyone and everyone and socialize with members of your community and other people outside your community. Be open and honest about what you are looking for as there is no shame in asking for help. A lot of opportunities are not always advertised and someone may lead you to something just right for you. For those who have made it, support others!
3. Explore the possibility of going back to school. For some certain professions, you may need to take some courses to upgrade to the country’s standard. Depending on what stage you have to return, make sure you have your transcripts and course outlines for credit transfers in order to shorten your duration in school.
4. Look for short programs to get you some form of accreditation here. This training coupled with your previous foreign education and work experience may just make the employers see your double advantage of international experience and local training.
5. Career change anyone? I have met a number of immigrants who have changed careers at different time points as they explored new or pre-existing interests.
Getting started can be very difficult and sometimes you may have to take a few steps back before you can propel forward!