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Arpit Modi, who teaches a supply chain bridging course for new immigrants, says broader policy change that fully takes immigrants’ skills and training into account would be beneficial to both employers and newcomers alike.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ramesh Kumar, owner of the Indian Beauty Salon in Brampton, Ont., sympathizes with newcomers trying to break into the industry in Ontario. But hairstyling is a regulated profession in the province – Mr. Kumar can’t hire someone without required experience, even if he wants to.

“My hands are tied,” he says. “I get approached by people who were experienced hairstylists in India, but I can’t hire them because they are not licensed in Ontario.”

Those interested in becoming a hairstylist in the province need to pass a stringent set of exams. But before they cross the final hurdle to get licensed, they also must have one crucial element on their résumés: “Canadian experience.”

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Immigration shortfalls making Canada’s labour problems worse

It’s a long-standing conundrum for new immigrants, including the many newcomers who call Brampton home. Though many worked in their chosen fields in their home countries, upon arrival in Canada they often find themselves unable to do so – not only because of different rules and regulations, but because most jobs require applicants to have Canadian work experience to even be considered. But as the pandemic has worsened labour shortages in many sectors, policy makers are beginning to re-examine the issue.

Businesses across Canada have reported staff shortages in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. While immigration has been a part of Canada’s strategy to address labour shortages, the job market still presents plenty of obstacles even for skilled newcomers. In 2016, only one-fourth of newcomers in Ontario worked in fields in which they were previously employed or in jobs they were trained to do in their countries of origin.

In Ontario, the provincial government recently passed legislation that includes new provisions which aim to remove barriers to entry for new immigrants in 14 regulated professions (including engineers, architects and educators) and 23 skilled trades (such as electricians, plumbers and hairstylists). It says the changes will not only speed up licensing and standardize the English-language tests that are part of the process, but also prevent employers from requiring prior Canadian work experience for those trades. The changes also address the need for applicants to move more quickly through the system during times of emergencies (such as a pandemic) that create an urgent demand for certain professions or trades.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) data show that between 2015 and 2020, slightly more than 307,000 people were granted permanent-resident visas in Ontario under worker programs. Visas were granted under six worker categories, including the skilled worker and caregiver programs. Roughly 91,000 of these – or less than one-third – were granted visas under the “Canadian experience” category.

To gain a foothold in the fields of their choice, new or recent immigrants often have to work low-paying survival jobs just to be able to say in an interview that they’ve worked in the Canadian job market. Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton acknowledged the problem when he announced the proposed changes to the law in October: “These are folks who often have the training, experience and qualifications to work in booming industries where Ontario desperately needs help, but are being denied a chance to contribute.”

The requirement for prior experience presents a dilemma for newcomers: They can’t get hired unless they have Canadian experience, and they can’t gain that experience unless they get hired. As a result, many immigrants are often forced to change their profession or get stuck in whatever jobs they took on to get experience or make a living.

“Working in that survival job makes your skills stale. The quicker you can get back into what you’re trained to do, the better it is for everyone,” says Ryerson University associate professor Rupa Banerjee, the Canada Research Chair in Economic Inclusion, Employment and Entrepreneurship of Canada’s Immigrants. “It is better for the economies of Canada and Ontario, better for the immigrants and their family, better for their communities.”

The update to Ontario’s labour law is limited to specific licensed trades. But even workers in unregulated sectors often end up having to work jobs outside of their profession to shore up Canadian experience. Chetan Sharma, 35, found himself having to do such work for two years upon his arrival in Canada. Mr. Sharma ran a packaging business in Panipat, India, before he moved to Canada in 2019. When he tried to look for a job, neither his work experience nor his MBA helped. “It was almost impossible to get into the packaging business, because I didn’t have Canadian experience. I had to change my field,” he says.

Mr. Sharma and his family left the Greater Toronto Area and moved to Sudbury, where he landed an internship at an IT consultancy firm, working three days a week. For two years, he went to his low-paying internship and made food deliveries during the rest of the week to make ends meet. Juggling two jobs paid off when he landed a full-time position at the consultancy firm. “I finally have a good job. Working survival jobs was a harrowing experience, but I did it for my family. I have no regrets.”

Aside from having to find any type of work just to break into the job market, newcomers also have to navigate underlying aspects of “Canadian experience” that go beyond the technical know-how of the job itself, including cultural elements such as accents and mannerisms.

“It includes a lot of unspoken qualities that represent this idea of Canadianness,” Dr. Banerjee notes.

Arpit Modi, who helps run a bridging course in Mississauga for newcomers hunting for work, concurs. “What employers are looking for are behavioural traits. I give newcomers career advice – but I also teach them things like what kind of language to use, to say ‘Sorry’ and ‘Thank you,’ and to talk about the weather.”

While looking for a job in 2019, Toronto resident Vandana Saini ran into this issue when an employer told her her accent was “too different” to work in events management – despite her years of international experience. “I cleared the English-language test for listening, speaking, reading and writing. But there was no test for accents,” she says. “Why did they say I could come to this country if I wasn’t worthy of the job market?”

In 2013, the Ontario Human Rights Commission said employers should not seek Canadian experience as a prerequisite for hiring a candidate. Dr. Banerjee says it has however become an ingrained cultural practice in the Canadian job market, and removing the restriction for licensed professions doesn’t mean that immigrants won’t still come up against barriers to entry in unregulated fields – including those currently facing a shortage of workers.

For instance, the Ontario legislation does not include medical professionals, though the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development said in its October announcement that it will consult with the provincial Ministry of Health to determine whether similar changes can also be made for the health care sector in the future.

Such a move would come none too soon for Rajane Thathari, who was a physiotherapist in India but now works as an assistant at a long-term care home in Toronto. “I got rejected from hundreds of jobs because I didn’t have Canadian experience,” she says. “Ontario can’t keep complaining about a lack of health care workers and not include us in the exemptions. It’s not fair.”

Mr. Modi, the job trainer, says broader policy change that fully takes immigrants’ skills and training into account would be beneficial to both employers and newcomers alike.

“Engineering experience is engineering experience. There is nothing Indian or Canadian about it,” he says. “If companies are forced to accept international experience, they will have to give specific reasons for rejecting a candidate other than a lack of Canadian experience.”

For newcomers like Ms. Saini who are trying to find meaningful work in Ontario, the province’s recent changes offer some hope. Several rejections later, she has still not given up on trying to land a job in the events-management industry.

“I think things will start to change now. Maybe this law will lead to changes in my sector, too,” she says. “I really think I will get a job soon.”

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