Owen Guo is a freelance writer in Toronto. He is a former reporter for the New York Times in Beijing and a graduate of the University of Toronto.
This summer, a recruiter hiring for a communications role wanted to know: What makes me a good fit for a Canadian company when the bulk of my work experience was in China, where I was born and raised?
It was a bit of a loaded question, and I was not sure how to answer. I could only regurgitate the relevant bits on my résumé - my Canadian degree and two years of work experience in Canada.
In 2018, I moved to Toronto to attend graduate school, after a seven-year journalism career in Beijing that included stints with the Financial Times and The New York Times. I thought my journalism background would give me a leg up during my job search. And it often did.
Not with that recruiter. I never heard back. It seems that I had failed the classic test of “Canadian experience,” two simple words that carry with them a world of problems.
Viewing Canadian work experience as a yardstick for competency deprives immigrants of the hope and dignity they need to put down roots in Canada. It is also economically myopic: It deprives Canada of the doctors, truck drivers, engineers and scientists it needs to keep its economy growing.
And I’ve come to realize that there is no simple solution to this problem.
This month, Ontario proposed new legislation aimed at barring employers from including the phrase “Canadian work experience” in job postings. In a press release, a government official said the legislative change would help eradicate barriers newcomers face in the job market.
Sadly, it will not.
That is because if you look up job postings that require Canadian work experience, you are unlikely to find many. These days, few employers even mention it.
Yet the requirement for Canadian experience can hang over the hiring process like a ghostly presence – just as it has for me. The recruiting agency never said it was a requirement. But the matter still came up subtly.
More often than not, the Canadian experience preferred by employers has more to do with culture than professional standards, according to Izumi Sakamoto, associate professor of social work at the University of Toronto, who has studied the phenomenon.
The perception is that some “immigrant workers have no experience at ‘being Canadian’ and don’t ‘fit in’ in the workplace,” she told U of T News in 2013. This is discrimination dressed in friendlier words. That same year, the Ontario Human Rights Commission came to the same conclusion – yet it keeps happening.
Ironically, the ask for “Canadian experience” is unique to a country known as welcoming. “While I lived in the U.S. for several years, I never heard of ‘American experience’ as an immigrant employment barrier,” Prof. Sakamoto said.
The result is that, while Canada prides itself on its pro-immigration policy, labour market outcomes for Canadian immigrants are less impressive.
In Canada, the unemployment rate for immigrants was 6.3 per cent in 2019, compared with 3.1 per cent for immigrants in the United States, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
This is a big problem, and not just for immigrants. In Ontario, research shows that if immigrants work in the professions they studied for, the province’s GDP would increase by up to $100-billion over five years.
In May, Professional Engineers Ontario, a self-regulatory body, announced that Canadian experience would no longer be a prerequisite for internationally trained engineers to get licensed. Hailing the move as a “game-changer” amid a labour crunch, the province said the change would help fill roughly 7,000 vacancies across the province.
In 2021, immigrants made up nearly a quarter of the Canadian population, a historic high. As Canada ages, immigration is projected to fuel the country’s entire population growth by 2032.
It is often said that immigrants help drive Canada’s prosperity. But if “Canadian experience” remains a stumbling block for newcomers to enter the job market, that vision will be nothing but a pipe dream.
Fortunately, I am now employed, working in a field where my past skills are highly relevant and respected. In hindsight, I would have answered that recruiter’s question differently.
There is nothing alien about my “foreign experience,” I would have emphasized. What I learned in China – skills like collaboration, research, empathy and writing – still applies. And I say this as a writer and communicator: a skill is a skill, regardless of where I call home.