Image by Alaskan Dude via FlickrBy Shaun Polczer, Calgary Herald
So the biggest challenge for skilled engineers immigrating to Canada isn’t the ability to run calculations, it’s often the ‘soft skills’ that go with finding a job on top of adjusting to a new culture and a new way of life.
Before coming to Canada four years ago, Tony Onyeka was an electrical engineer in Nigeria, designing power grids and electrical systems. Now he’s working in IT — not a bad job, but not his chosen field of expertise.
“This is not what I was qualifi ed for,” he says. “I was trained in electrical engineering. Right now I work for an engineering company but I’m trying to get into the same field.”
According to Lionel Laroche, skilled immigrants often find themselves doing menial jobs when their skills and experience have far more value for themselves and for society as a whole.
“That’s exactly what we’re trying to avoid,” he says.
The problem is made more acute by the recession, especially for immigrant workers who’ve found less demand for their skills since the downturn.
“In 2006 and 2007 when Alberta was booming it was much easier at that point to find jobs. What we’ve seen is a number of immigrants during that period of time found jobs and lost them when the recession came.”
Laroche, a private consultant, was in Calgary this week to host a seminar for the Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists of Alberta aimed at helping immigrant engineers transition into the Canadian workplace by developing interviewing and job search skills. The program is a joint effort between the association and Bow Valley College.
The one-day workshop is followed up by a series of personal coaching sessions aimed at helping the participants find work in Alberta.
Laroche is a chemical engineer and an immigrant to Canada who recognized a void, both inside corporations and professional agencies, when he was working for Procter and Gamble and Xerox, large multinational firms that employ people from around the world.
“In both companies I was working with engineers from all around the world. We all spoke English but we were not getting anywhere and I could see that cultural differences were a big factor. I could see that a lot of qualified immigrants — technically qualified with good education — were not getting the kind of positions that I thought were in line with their education. I tried to research where the mismatch was coming from.”
Laroche says immigrants often have less trouble finding friends and establishing a sense of community in their adopted country than finding jobs in their chosen fields.
“Most immigrants are good at creating a support network relatively quickly, from an emotional and practical perspective,” he explains. “The problem is that network does not help you on the professional side.”
The federal government makes about 20,000 skilled worker visas available each year. Before skilled applicants such as engineers can work in Canada, they have to be certified by a professional association such as APEGGA and meet several criteria to be eligible for the skilled worker designation.
Applicants need a university degree and an offer of employment or a minimum of one year of professional work experience in addition to the ability to communicate in English or French.
Although Onyeka has seven years’ experience as an engineer in Nigeria, he doesn’t have the prerequisite Canadian work experience that would allow him to become an APEGGA member and become certified in his country.
After the initial shock of arriving in Canada in the middle of winter, it’s one of the last and possibly toughest hurdles before he makes Canada his home and native land. Despite an admission of occasional bouts of homesickness, Onyeka has decided to formalize has commitment to this country by applying for citizenship.
“Having survived a year or two of it, you get used to it, you acclimatize,” he says.