The unemployment gap between university-educated immigrants and their Canadian counterparts in the GTA has significantly narrowed over the last two decades, but employers’ demand for Canadian job experience remains a key barrier for newcomers, a new study has found.
In 2001, newcomers with at least a Bachelor’s degree had an unemployment rate that was 3.85 times higher than their Canadian-born peers, but by 2016, this had dropped to only 2.4 times, said the report commissioned by the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC).
“This does indeed suggest that the circumstances of newcomers are improving,” said the report titled State of Immigrant Inclusion in GTA Labour Market. “The gap persists, but it is getting smaller.”
While newcomers with a Canadian degree in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics/IT) subject are doing nearly as well as their Canadian-born counterparts, the report said immigrant women with a degree from outside Canada in a non-STEM subject fare the worst.
Based on census data between 2001 and 2016, the report tracked the makeup of the GTA labour market and immigrants’ job prospects since TRIEC was established in 2003 to address Canada’s doctors-driving-cabs immigrant conundrum.
In 2001, university-educated immigrants had an unemployment rate of 13.1 per cent, almost four times higher than the 3.4 per cent rate for Canadians with the same level of education. While the jobless rate for those immigrants still hovered at around 12.5 per cent, the rate among Canada-born degree-holders shot up to 5.2 per cent.
One possible contributing factor for the narrowing gap, the report said, was the higher number of newcomers who now possess Canadian education credentials.
In 2006, only 8 per cent of newcomers to the GTA had earned a degree in Canada, but by 2011, it had more than doubled, to 18 per cent. It was at 17 per cent in 2016.
The data also showed newcomers who arrived in Ontario with university degrees before 1990 ultimately worked in a job that requires a university degree at the same rate as their Canadian counterparts — roughly 70 per cent. However, only 54 per cent of degree-holding newcomers who arrived in the last decade are at a comparable job.
“It is taking too long for immigrants to catch up with their Canadian-born counterparts,” said the report. “Unemployment at the start of an immigrant’s working life in Canada can have a long-lasting impact.”
Mexican immigrant Miguel Abascal is a testament to that struggle.
With a Master’s degree in finance, the former CEO of a coffee production and distribution company moved to Canada in 2010 and found his first Canadian job at a Tim Hortons in Burlington. He sent out hundreds of resumés without yielding a single interview.
After a year, he enrolled in a government-funded job search program and got a job as a bankruptcy processer, then selling insurance door-to-door and going back to Tim Hortons before landing a job as a teller with help from a TD branch manager he met at a networking event in 2013.
“For four years, I was living my Canadian nightmare,” said Abascal, 35, who was quickly promoted through the ranks and is now a project manager at the bank. “I’m finally living my Canadian dream, but four, five years were too long. We want newcomers to realize their dream and full potential in five weeks.”
Abascal said there are more organizations offering mentoring and networking programs these days than when he first came. He has seen more recent newcomers joining the bank at entry level jobs in his five years there.
The “Canadian dream is powered by networking. It’s all about connections and referrals,” said Abascal. “At the end of the day, it’s about an employer’s trust in you.”
The study also surveyed employers and immigrant employment service providers and found credential recognition, the need for Canadian experience, perceptions about language and communication skills, bias and discrimination have remained the main employment barriers for newcomers.
Iren Koltermann, who co-authored the study with Denise McLean, said Canada must scale up mentorship and career-bridging programs that have been proven effective for the integration of newcomers and strive to make a “Canadian experience requirement” a thing of the past.
“What is Canadian experience? It’s a lexicon no one can define,” said Koltermann. “We can’t use a blanket term and reduce it to cliché. Is it about not being educated in health and safety? We need to unpack and explain it.”
KPMG Canada has for years had a formal strategy to attract and retain global talent and promote inclusion and diversity. It measures and sets annual goals for the organization’s gender and visible minority representation. Last year, 20 per cent of those who were promoted to become partners were people of colour, 5 per cent higher than four years ago.
“Because of the nature of the firm in tax and audit, we do require technical knowledge, but it should not be a barrier,” said Kristine Remedios, KPMG Canada’s national leader in inclusion and diversity. “They are internationally trained and we can offer support for some of that education within the firm.”
The changing labour market landscape does help recent skilled immigrants hit the ground running faster.
Unlike Abascal, Eishita Alam, a banker from Bangladesh, enrolled in a job readiness program for newcomers within weeks of her arrival in Toronto last July. In September, she was matched with a professional mentor through TRIEC.
The 37-year-old woman has garnered five job interviews through her nascent professional network, but is still without a job.
“I didn’t have high school friends or former colleagues in my network and must start from zero here,” said Alam, who has an MBA and held a director position in credit analysis with Standard Chartered, a British bank, in Dhaka.
“The barrier for us is the lack of Canadian experience. There’s still a lack of recognition of our international experience.”
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung