Canada’s immigration policy offers preferential treatment to immigrants with professional qualifications in short supply in Canada, but professional associations in Canada do not recognize foreign credentials. Anecdotal accounts of physicians and engineers immigrating to Canada only to drive taxis or clean offices are common.  The impression that today’s immigrants are not faring as well as past generations of immigrants who came to Canada has been backed up with statistics:  earnings of recently arrived immigrants are dropping; the unemployment rate is high.  Yet at the same time, some regions of Canada are experiencing labour shortages.  Positions go unfilled while qualified professional or skilled immigrants remain unemployed or underemployed.

One of the factors blamed for this disconnect between labour demand and supply is a failure to efficiently and fairly recognize the foreign credentials of newcomers to Canada.  Foreign credential recognition has been defined as the process of verifying that the education and job experience obtained in another country are equal to the standards established for Canadian workers. It has been described as a critical aspect of immigrants’ ability to obtain employment in Canada.

In the past, immigrants outperformed Canadian-born workers in the labour market. That pattern started to change in the 1970s.  Immigrants, especially recently arrived immigrants, now have a substantially higher unemployment rate than their Canadian-born counterparts, and among those who are working, have lower incomes than Canadian workers with the same amount of education and work experience. In 2007, the national unemployment rate for working-age immigrants who have been in Canada for five years or less was 11%, more than double the rate of 4.6% for the Canadian-born population. Among those who have been here for five to 10 years, the unemployment rate was 7.3%. This trend continues over time – the longer an immigrant has been landed in Canada, the more closely the employment rate resembles that of Canadian-born workers.

Immigrant unemployment

Those immigrants who do find work in Canada today are poorer than earlier generations of immigrants.  One study found that average entry-level earnings of newly arrived immigrants have declined by about 20% since the early 1970s. Rates of low income among recent immigrants in the 2000s are higher than they were at any time during the 1990s. Regardless of their level of education, 60% of employed immigrants do not work at the same occupation level they occupied before they came to Canada.  Immigrants may take 20–28 years to reach wage parity with comparably qualified Canadians (if ever), with little value generally ascribed by employers to non-western experience. Yet immigrants aged 25 to 54 are much more likely than Canadian-born men and women to be university educated:  36% versus 22%, respectively.  A university education does not significantly improve a recent immigrant’s chances of employment, as it does for Canadian-born workers.  In 2007, the unemployment rate for recently landed immigrants with a university degree was 10.7%, compared to 2.4% for Canadian-born workers who are university educated.

Immigrant Wages

At first glance, it may be difficult to understand why today’s generation of immigrants is not prospering in Canada like prior generations did.  It is unlikely that Canadians’ recognition of foreign credentials has deteriorated over the years, or that immigrants today are any less motivated and hard-working than their predecessors. With a closer inspection of the problem, many explanations become evident.

Likely explanations for the downward trend in immigrant earnings relate to the changing origins of immigrants.  Before the reforms of the 1960s, major immigrant source countries were the United Kingdom and the United States – two English-speaking countries with education systems comparable to Canada’s. By 2007, around half of Canada’s new permanent residents originated in Asia or Pacific regions (112,659), another 20.5% came from Africa or the Middle East (48,570) and 10.9% were from South or Central America (25,890).  Immigrants from all parts of Europe or the United States accounted for the remaining 20.9% of newcomers (39,070 and 10,450, respectively.)

Provenance of immigrants

This greater diversity in backgrounds, first languages, education and training among today’s immigrants raises challenges for Canada’s credential recognition programs.  Barriers may come in various forms.  Sometimes newcomers lack knowledge about how to have their skills recognized.  Fundamentally different education and training systems may make comparisons with Canadian credentials harder to draw.  A barrier to almost any employment, non-proficiency in English or French can also affect credential recognition.  Financial constraints or market barriers caused by professional association protectionism may also stand in the way of an immigrant becoming qualified in Canada.

In this context, both mass migration and low migration could help the problem. Mass migration would spark movements influencing the Canadian government to pass laws recognising their professional credentials. However, mass migration would also diminish the demand for highly trained workers. On the other hand, low migration would not directly put pressure on the government for a change in policy but would limit the supply of highly trained workers and thus increase their appeal to professional associations. These associations, faced with skilled labour shortages, could then be the ones to influence the Canadian government to change its laws.

Type and number of immigrants

The federal and provincial governments must continue the various programs in place aiming to better inform immigrants about credential recognition before they emigrate and to assist them upon arrival in Canada.  In addition, the government is making greater use of labour-market-focused immigration programs, such as the CEC and PNPs, which may facilitate better economic outcomes for immigrants.  Monitoring these initiatives will help to inform future activities. Also, instead of simply granting preferential treatment to those with professional qualifications in short supply, actively choosing or recruiting immigrants whose credentials and skills will most readily be valued in Canada may be an approach for the government to consider.  However, because most immigrants who come to Canada each year are not selected under economic programs, pressure to improve foreign credential recognition and economic outcomes for newcomers will persist.


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