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the future of work

It's nearly impossible to attend a dinner party or school recital these days without the conversation quickly turning to the 25,000 Syrian refugees expected in Canada in the coming months.

The crisis appears to have brought out the best in many communities. One committee at our local school raised the required $46,000 to sponsor a family of six so quickly, they started to fund a second family.

While those individuals who have tirelessly raised money deserve a collective pat on the back, getting the refugees here and finding them shelter, food, furniture and clothing is just the beginning. In 12 short months, private sponsorship money will dry up and these families will require adequate employment to survive and thrive. While finding work is no easy feat for any newcomer, it may be especially challenging for these refugees.

"Skilled newcomers experience many challenges in getting suitable employment, including lack of recognition by employers of their experience and education, language and cultural differences, and unconscious bias against those who are perceived to be different," said Margaret Eaton, executive director at the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC).

On the language front, she explained, potential employees must not only be able to read and write in English or French, but also understand spoken English or French and make themselves understood. While Ms. Eaton said that some of the Syrians arriving in Toronto appear to have strong English-language skills, there is no overall picture yet of their work skills or intended occupations.

It may also be difficult for potential employers to validate their work history and professional credentials, since some schools and academic institutions have been destroyed and the employment records of people who had to flee their homes and take shelter in refugee camps may be lost or hard to come by.

As a result, some new arrivals to Canada may have to take low-skill "survival jobs," rather than ones that take full advantage of their skills and training. While it may be admirable and even necessary to take such jobs to make ends meet, Ms. Eaton said it's better for the newcomers – and for Canada – if people can do the work they are trained to do, particularly in fields where we have shortages of skilled workers. A nurse should be working as a nurse, she said, not a waitress.

"Employment is the key determinant of mental health – and not just any job. Having a job that's commensurate with your skills and education is vital," Ms. Eaton said. "We want, for their sakes and for ours, our new neighbours to be able to contribute to their fullest. When immigrants prosper, we all prosper."

One thing sponsoring families can do to help is to open up their professional and personal networks to refugee job seekers, granting them access to the hidden job market.

"The biggest barrier to employment is a lack of a network, whether that be social, professional, or otherwise," said Jeremy Dutton, program co-ordinator for Immigrant Services Calgary's integrated mentorship program.

"Nuances in language and social customs can also complicate this. A lot of newcomers are reluctant to reach out to people for this reason, and also because they often lack confidence in their speaking ability, even though their English is perfectly intelligible. This can really interfere with networking efforts, and the ability to successfully talk about themselves at interviews," he added.

Since accreditation will be an additional barrier, professional licensing organizations may also play a role in helping or hindering the job options for refugees.

Barbara Dixon, president of Diversity ERAA Training in Winnipeg and the author of a guide for Syrian refugees in Canada, encourages professional licensing bodies to "think outside the box and develop ways for Syrian professionals to demonstrate their skills and knowledge.

"Canadian professional associations have never been quick to respond to this but the Syrian refugees offer a huge opportunity to utilize and benefit from the skills they bring to the Canadian work force. We just have to start being a little less arrogant about our skills being the best, and look for creative ways to recognize the professional skills and abilities of those coming with professional qualifications obtained outside of Canada," she said.

Ms. Dixon's biggest concern is that Canadians who are eager to help now will forget about the Syrian refugees in a year or two, when supporting them is no longer "in style." Since private sponsorship agreements end after a year, some people may expect the refugees to be financially independent and relatively fluent in English or French. Unfortunately, a year isn't enough time to integrate into Canadian society, she warned. Many of those arriving in Canada, she surmised, will need support to deal with isolation, discrimination and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Once financial commitments end, Syrian refugee adults may be forced to work at two to three jobs to make ends meet … They will still need help understanding the Canadian workplace and systems. Poverty may affect their ability to purchase suitable workplace clothes, makeup, shoes, accessories and haircuts. This, in turn, will affect how they are perceived in the workplace when promotional opportunities become available," she warned.

Successful integration into Canada's workplace won't take place overnight, and come this time next year, we'll need to make sure our support for these refugees continues to the next level.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a machine-learning, human capital search engine for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler

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