Educated immigrants stuck in survival jobs
For some of Metro Vancouver's most intelligent citizens, life is fraught with disappointment and frustration. Take Newman Kusina, for example. Since moving to Canada in January 2008, the Zimbabwean-born academic has spent his nights awake at his computer, unable to sleep.
"When I came here, I had all the zeal and expectations of when you arrive in a new country," Kusina said. "But it is an absolute nightmare."
Three evenings a week, Kusina works as a guard for Paladin Security in downtown Vancouver. Speaking to the Georgia Straight at his modest home in Surrey, he said that he usually works alone and busies himself by moving smokers away from doorways. He walks the streets and daydreams about classrooms of university students and debates with colleagues.
Kusina's story is not unique. Talk to educated immigrants from across the region and a consensus quickly emerges: unemployment is a serious problem. Newcomers looking for work face a host of challenges. There is discrimination, complications around accreditation of foreign degrees, and an isolation that leaves many out of the loop on job openings. The recession is now making things worse.
Kusina's experience in Canada epitomizes the difficulties that this demographic struggles with. He is a certified physiologist with degrees from the University of Zimbabwe and the University of Minnesota. And he has teaching experience in Zimbabwe and at the University of Illinois and the University of Minnesota. But none of this has translated into a teaching position in British Columbia.
And so Kusina patrols the streets of downtown Vancouver. He said that his security shifts usually end around 10 p.m., at which point he takes the SkyTrain back to Surrey. After a short cab ride from the station, he finally arrives home after 11 p.m., often to find his wife and son already asleep.
"The first thing I do is check my e-mail," Kusina continued. At any given time, he is waiting for responses to dozens of résumés left with postsecondary institutions. "I don't go to bed until around 2 or 3; my mind is always busy," he said. "I find it very difficult to go to sleep because I do not know what I am going to do the next day. It is terrifying to think of."
Kusina and his family landed in Montreal in January 2008. His inability to speak French contributed to his rejection by many postsecondary institutes in Quebec, so the family moved west. But after working as a professor of physiology for 15 years, Kusina found himself rejected by literally every university and college in B.C.
"I had this collection of applications and I just threw them away," he lamented. "They were an insult to look at."
So at the age of 46, Kusina went back to school to write English essays and learn about "Canadian culture". "It was very frustrating, and the quality, as far as I'm concerned, was not worth my time sitting in a classroom," he said. "But I had to do it."
One thing that Kusina said he did take from these classes is an appreciation for how employment in British Columbia works, or at least how many newcomers experience it.
"So many jobs are not advertised," he said. "And when they [employers] advertise, they often already have somebody already. So you have to know somebody. It's not corruption, but you have to know somebody."
Statistics Canada data has recently shone a light on the circumstances in which Kusina and so many others find themselves.
According to a July 2008 report, the majority (54 percent) of immigrants to Canada since 2002 have been university-educated. In 2007, the unemployment rate for these immigrants was four times that of similarly educated Canadian-born residents.
More concerning, there is a correlation between one's country of origin and the odds of finding a job in Canada. The report states that in B.C. in 2007, 85 percent of university-educated, very recent immigrants from Europe were employed while only 60.7 percent of those from Asia had found employment in B.C. (Data for other regions was not available.)
And that's only half the story. Statistics Canada's definition of "employment" doesn't differentiate between a PhD from India who works at McDonald's and a Canadian-educated Norwegian who works as a nurse at Vancouver General Hospital. For new families in Canada, the difference is very real.
Krishna Pendakur, an SFU economist whose family emigrated from India, recently coauthored a working paper that examines wage disparities among immigrants and minority workers. His research found that skilled immigrants of visible minorities often face a series of barriers on their way to a job in their preferred field.
When visible-minority men first arrive in Canada, they are crowded into low-paying "survival jobs", Pendakur told the Straight. This "sticky floor" does erode over time, but only to leave immigrants to contend with "glass doors" and "glass ceilings".
The report describes a glass door as a "barrier that limits disadvantaged workers' access to employment at high-wage firms" and a glass ceiling as a "barrier that limits access to high-wage jobs".
According to Pendakur's research, the combination of these hurdles leaves many visible-minority immigrants locked out of high-wage jobs in B.C., despite the fact that a majority are trained for such positions.
Since 1976, the colourful neighbourhood adjacent to Commercial Drive has hosted MOSAIC, a multilingual, nonprofit organization that offers services for immigrants.
Binders of job openings hang from the walls of the reception area. Nearby, people sit and fill out applications for every kind of position in the city. Down the hall, computer labs wait for new immigrants to begin their job searches in B.C. or write e-mails to family members back in their birth country.
Sitting in his second-storey office, Eyob Naizghi, MOSAIC's executive director, described an immigrant's landing in Vancouver as "overwhelming".
"You cannot talk about employment before one settles the mind," he said. "You have to find a neighbourhood you like, you have to find a school for your children, you have to know where you are going to shop, you have to know where you are going to do your banking."
And then, according to Naizghi, it is often time for a "reality check".
Naizghi, who came to Canada as a refugee from Eritrea in 1981, explained that many skilled immigrants arrive in Canada unprepared for the challenges they will face.
"They come here with a dream of practising their own profession," he said. "Some of them have practised their profession for 20 or more years in their own country, as doctors, as nurses, as engineers, as managers, as IT people. And then they come here and we have a hurdle that we describe as ”˜recognizing qualifications'."
In B.C., professional accreditation is regulated at the provincial level, but rarely by the province itself. A multitude of acts give professional organizations the powers to regulate their own industries and set standards for accreditation.
For example, an immigrant trained as an engineer in Asia usually has to spend years retraining to continue as an engineer in Canada. Who is qualified to be an engineer in B.C. is decided by the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of B.C. in accordance with the B.C. Engineers and Geoscientists Act.
Miu Yan, an associate professor at UBC's school of social work, told the Straight that many immigrants end up in low-paying jobs because of prohibitive accreditation processes. "For certain professions”¦like medical professionals and lawyers, they are almost undoable and can take years to get," he said.
As a result, Yan continued, many skilled immigrants—especially those with families to support—find themselves caught in a Catch-22 situation. Immigrants arrive eager to use their skills and enter the Canadian work force. But their degrees are not recognized and they must go back to school. But if they return to school, they run the risk of burning through their savings and letting their family go hungry. The "solution" is to work in low-paying "survival jobs" that provide little money and even less time to attend school and study.
Yan described the whole immigration process in Canada as a "broken contract". He noted that many prospective immigrants are only eligible to come to Canada if they have a postsecondary education. Furthermore, they are often recruited by the federal government because of their education and skills. In turn, Yan continued, immigrants arrive in Canada eager to contribute to society. But when they get here, provincial regulations often reject the very skills for which they were recruited.
"To a certain extent, Canada and the Canadian government or Canadian society is breaking a contract," Yan charged. "You can imagine that people can be very, very bitter and unhappy about this situation."
Yan argued that it is not only immigrants who are being deceived. He said that the federal government seems to believe that it is recruiting skilled immigrants for the improvement of the country. But as Statistics Canada's unemployment figures for skilled immigrants to Canada show, the system is failing.
Jackie Ochieng was once an accredited social worker in Kenya. In 2003, she immigrated to Canada to attend UBC and start a new life. After graduating, she found herself in a variety of survival jobs and struggling to make ends meet. Ochieng said that she worked as a telemarketer, dishwasher, cleaner, and babysitter before she decided to go back to school and retrain to become an employment consultant.
Today, she holds that position as manager of SUCCESS employment services, a multiservice agency for immigrants to Metro Vancouver. Ochieng said that although immigrants were once largely ignorant of accreditation problems in Canada, the situation has changed.
"It has become common knowledge to know that if you move to a western country, chances are that you are not going to get a job in the same area [as you are educated in]," she said.
Ochieng described the situation as a spin on the "brain drain" concept. Western countries recruit developing nations' professionals, which can result in a depletion of those countries' most intelligent citizens. Then, when these immigrants arrive in places like B.C., their brains go unused and "down the drain".
B.C.'s minister of advanced education and labour market development told the Straight that accreditation is an issue that his office is working to address.
"I think there has been a real change across the country in views to immigration," Murray Coell said from Victoria. He noted that the entire country is experiencing demographic changes that will inevitably leave many employers looking to immigrants to fill positions in professions and trades.
Coell said that the ministry is working with 38 separate regulatory bodies to speed up processes of accreditation recognition and is also involved in a series of pilot projects that are "looking at a standardized accreditation process for professions or skilled trades".
In 2007, 14,761 skilled immigrants arrived in B.C., down 1,927 from 2006 and the lowest level since 1995, according to an April 2008 report published by the Ministry Responsible for Multiculturalism.
Streamlining foreign-credential accreditation will help immigrants get back into the fields they left in their home countries. But it will not ensure they do. Ochieng said that another significant barrier to skilled immigrants finding work in B.C. is a lack of established networks.
"You have to know someone who knows someone who is hiring out there but who has not advertised the job in the newspaper or on the Internet," Ochieng explained. "Although they [immigrants] might have all the skills, they don't know how to access hidden markets and jobs that are not advertised."
Immigrants to Metro Vancouver have noticed this problem and some have worked to correct it.
In 1990, Paul Mulangu and his wife were separated in a government crackdown in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Fearing for the lives of his children, Mulangu set off with his son and daughter for neighbouring Zambia. They walked for two days without food and water until they arrived at a refugee camp across the border. After "six very long years", Mulangu told the Straight, his refugee claim to Canada was accepted.
But Mulangu's life wasn't given a happy ending just yet. A metallurgical engineer trained in Congo and Belgium, he found that his university degrees weren't enough in B.C.
"When I came here, I couldn't find a job in my field, which is why I ended up cleaning washrooms," he said. "It is not about qualifications, it's about who you know."
For six months in 1996, Mulangu sat at home waiting for the phone to ring. When it did—usually no more than a few times a week—it meant that he had a shift cleaning bathrooms at Vancouver International Airport. He worked graveyard shifts and, without money for a baby sitter, often had to leave his children unattended at home. "It was a very terrible situation," he said. "There was nobody there and no daycare."
Desperate to improve his family's situation, Mulangu enrolled in English classes at BCIT. (At the time, he spoke only French, having arrived in Canada believing that the country was bilingual.) His next step was computer classes at Vancouver Community College and then a program to train as an employment counsellor.
Mulangu said that in looking for employment in B.C., he recognized a need among new immigrants for equal access to job networks. His experience led him to found the Centre of Integration for African Immigrants. Today, the centre helps immigrants from any background with their first steps in Canada. Services range from helping newcomers find a home and school for their children to language training and, of course, employment assistance.
At the end of February 2009, the centre moved into a newly renovated, 8,500-square-foot facility at the corner of Carnarvon and Blackie streets in New Westminster.
Walking through unfinished walls and around electrical wire that remained exposed at the time of his interview, Mulangu excitedly explained everything the new facility will be able to offer immigrants to B.C. "We give people information," he said. "With my experience, I know I can help people find a job."
For more than 15 years, Zool Suleman has worked as a lawyer specializing in citizenship, immigration, and refugees. Suleman told the Straight that unemployment numbers for skilled immigrants of visible minorities are evidence that discrimination persists in B.C.
He argued that discrimination manifests itself in the exclusion of new immigrants from the "networks of entry" that Canadian-born, generally Caucasian workers enjoy.
All too often, Suleman explained, high-paying positions are quickly filled by applicants who have inside information on the opening and know someone within the company who can vouch for them or speak to their expertise.
"If you find that your social circle does not have people who are in good occupations or are in good jobs, it's harder to get that informal information about what is going on in a job marketplace," Suleman said. "For immigrants from visible-minority communities that are not well-represented in the workplace, this is a real issue."
The result of all this? "Immigrants come here for themselves but they stay for their children."
In 2005, the City of Vancouver established the Mayor's Task Force on Immigration. Suleman served as a chair for the group. He said that one suggestion that came out of the task force was to create a council to focus on labour-market integration of immigrants.
On February 3, 2009, the Immigrant Employment Council of B.C. held its inaugural meeting at the Vancouver Foundation. Baldwin Wong, social planner for the city and former task force secretary, told the Straight that the council is now establishing working groups to address specific challenges that immigrants face.
Newcomers are looking for ways to take matters into their own hands, make their skills known, and penetrate exclusionary job networks.
Through internship programs, Wong explained, immigrants can get their feet in the door and gain local, on-site experience in the industry for which they were trained. Meanwhile, employers get an opportunity to observe skills taught at a foreign, possibly unfamiliar institution and can give someone a chance without making a long-term commitment.
Similarly, Wong continued, mentorship programs or volunteer work can supply qualified candidates with local experience and an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of local institutions while, again, minimizing risk for the employer.
Of course, Wong cautioned, finding time to volunteer can be very challenging when one must provide for a family. "Many people I know have to work more than one job to make ends meet," he noted.
Speaking from SUCCESS's employment office, Ochieng said that it was volunteering that got her where she is today. After arriving in Canada without references, she said, volunteering was a way for her to overcome a credibility gap.
Ochieng emphasized the need for new immigrants to break down doors that separate them from industry networks. The best way to do that: knocking.
"You have to go knock and find where someone is going on leave or retiring or going on maternity leave and where there are positions where managers are thinking of hiring but have not posted the job yet," she said. "The government of Canada is great about having community events. Find them out. Attend them. This is free networking. This is where you meet people."
In addition to collecting job postings, SUCCESS, MOSAIC, and the Centre of Integration for African Immigrants all help newcomers find interning and mentorship opportunities.
Kusina went so far as to describe volunteer service as a "prerequisite" to meaningful employment in Canada. He suggested that with the odds stacked against them, immigrants must make time.
Talking to the Straight in his living room, Kusina motioned to his 12-year-old son sitting nearby at a computer. "My son asks, ”˜Dad, why are you not working?'" Kusina said. "He always used to come to my work at the university and look at all the books."
Kusina took the job with Paladin because it offered a two-week first-aid course to new hires. He said that he wanted anything related to biology and Paladin's training was as close as he could get.
"Despite the minimum challenges in my current job, I have begun to like and respect it," he said. "It teaches me to be calm, considerate, and humbling when you are confronted by the day-to-day misfortunes of so many who need help."
Kusina has worked as a security guard for Paladin since October 2008 and continues to attend job fairs and drop résumés off all over the city.
"I can teach, I like to do research, I like to work with communities. But they say I don't have enough Canadian experience," Kusina said. "I know what I want. It is going to take time, but I am going to get there. It is painful, it is ridiculous, but I am here and I am not going anywhere."