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Janet Lane is the director of the Human Capital Centre at the Canada West Foundation

Five years ago, Divyesh Patel – a chemical engineer with 10 years of experience working for an international company based in the U.S. – emigrated from India, only to be told that he couldn’t work as an engineer in Alberta. His story of wasted talent has become far too common in Canada – and, worse, shows how the immigration system breaks its implied promises to immigrants trained in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Top talent is encouraged to immigrate to Canada and granted permanent resident status on the basis of points. Professional credentials are heavily weighted in the point system, at the very least implying a promise of being able to use them in Canada. But more often than not, once they arrive, STEM professionals are not deemed competent to work here.

A recently released Statistics Canada study, Immigrant Skill Utilization: Immigrants With STEM Education And Trends In Over-Education, reveals that only 39 per cent of immigrants with STEM-field bachelor’s degrees were employed in a STEM field in 2016. Those who did find a STEM job earned 28 per cent less than Canadian-born STEM graduates. Only 48 per cent of immigrant engineering graduates were employed in a STEM occupation. Immigrants were not alone in being underemployed in the STEM field; only 66 per cent of Canadian-born engineering graduates had STEM jobs – part of a larger problem which also needs to be addressed.

However, if STEM graduates are encouraged to emigrate to Canada, there should be a way to engage more of them in work in their field.

One way to make sure that people with foreign qualifications are competent for Canadian jobs is using a competency-based approach to hiring – an approach that an Alberta professional association in the field of engineering technology has already started pioneering, to great success.

ASET (Association of Science and Engineering Technology Professionals of Alberta) has put in place a competency-based approach to certify its members. It developed competency frameworks for engineering technician and technologist disciplines and has been providing competency assessment in a range of fields for its members for three years. Members are required to submit proof of competency related to their discipline and demonstrate both experience and academic qualifications – through a certification examination if there is any question about their academics.

This means that internationally trained members like Mr. Patel, the chemical engineer, can have far greater success in their Canadian careers. Mr. Patel, who went through ASET to certify his credentials, is now working as an engineering technologist. Although he’s not working as an engineer, he’s got a great job; without ASET, even this might never have been possible.

Competency frameworks house the competencies – skills, knowledge and attributes – required to perform the tasks of a job, the levels of competence required, and the standards for assessing competence at each level for job families and industry sectors. Other countries use them, and Canada is starting to build them in some fields. Ultimately, these frameworks could be linked together to create pan-Canadian competency frameworks that show not just what is required to perform jobs, but also the competency learning pathways between them.

Knowing what competence looks like is key to this approach – and assessing for competence is what makes it useful for the users of credentials – employers and individuals. Improvements in assessment, supplemented with technology, including artificial intelligence, are making assessment of competence easier and cheaper all the time.

The current practice of assessing and recognizing foreign credentials involves step-by-step matching of their training to required professional training programs here. This matching process, undertaken by immigrant-serving agencies, postsecondary institutions and credential assessment organizations can take months and is costly. Many immigrants give up trying, often never working in their field of choice again.

The approach is beginning to be used by a variety of professional associations and industry sectors across Canada. While competency-based assessment won’t ensure that STEM-trained immigrants can find a good STEM job, it removes subjectivity from the hiring process and enables better matching of people with jobs and jobs with people. It also ensures that the people who are certified not only meet the required qualifications, but also are actually competent to do the work involved.

If more professional associations and other certifying bodies implement a competency-based approach, it could put more people to work in Canada’s economy – and put an end to the broken promises many well-qualified immigrants, including engineers such as Mr. Patel, experience when they get to Canada.