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Canada tops Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries when it comes to higher education. More than half of our citizens (53 per cent) have a tertiary qualification, compared to the OECD average of 32 per cent.

However, many Canadians with post-secondary degrees are working in jobs that do not take advantage of their abilities and do not require a post-secondary education. This is what we call "mal-employment," and it's hitting two groups especially hard: immigrants and young people.

New to Canada, new to the workforce

About four in 10 immigrants to Canada have university degrees, compared to fewer than two in 10 of those born in Canada. Yet when Statistics Canada looked at immigrants trained for regulated professions, such as engineering, medicine, nursing and teaching, it found that just 24 per cent of foreign-educated immigrants were working in their field. That compares to 62 per cent of similarly trained professionals born in Canada. Not surprisingly, the early years here are the hardest. One study found that four years after arriving in Canada, 70 per cent of men and 65 per cent of women held jobs that didn't require their level of education.

Much has been written about the employment and consequent financial struggles of Canada's young people. More than four in 10 Canadians in their 20s (42 per cent) live with their parents. The 2015 Office of the Parliamentary Budget Report estimated that 40 per cent of Canadian university graduates aged 25 to 34 were overqualified for their jobs.

Mal-employment frustrates employees and can lead to lower productivity and costly turnover for employers. There's also a significant and ongoing cost to our economy. Immigrant mal-employment alone costs an estimated $20 billion in foregone earnings and is a significant contributor to the gap in productivity between Canada and the United States.

We don't have to accept the status quo. There are solutions to mal-employment – and both employers and employees have a role to play in implementing them.

1. Make specialized training available to internationally educated professionals

People who immigrate to Canada need an efficient way to upgrade their credentials to meet Canadian standards. At The Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University, where I am Dean, we recognize the issues faced by internationally educated professionals and offer a growing list of programs for professionals educated internationally in fields such as accounting and finance, dietetics and nutrition, health research and health management, middle-level management, midwifery, physiotherapy, social work and engineering.

Connecting immigrants to appropriate programs helps employers meet their future talent needs. The rewards for employees are obvious. Since our dietitian and social work programs launched in 2005, more than 80 per cent of social workers and dietitians have found work in their field within a year of graduating and the numbers are similar for other disciplines.

2. Encourage and participate in workplace mentorship programs

Mentoring is essential for both immigrants to Canada and young people. Each group needs to learn the ropes in order to climb them. Who better to teach them than established professionals?

A workplace mentorship program can be implemented simply and inexpensively – and it can have impressive results. Just one year after completing a mentoring program, a recent study by Accenture and ALLIES (Assisting Local Leaders with Immigrant Employment Strategies) Canada found that participants' full-time earnings rose 62 per cent, from $36,905 to $59,944.

Just as important, 27 per cent of mentees were employed in their field of expertise at the beginning of the program. Twelve months later, that number was up to 71 per cent.

3. Take advantage of the flexibility of distance education

Employers are investing less in training. In the two decades between 1993 and 2013, the Conference Board of Canada found that spending on workplace training dropped by approximately 40 per cent to $705 per employee from $1,207 per employee (in constant dollars). To make the most of the training dollars that are still available, employers and employees can take advantage of cost-effective, convenient distance education opportunities.

Technology makes it possible for distance education to provide student experiences that are just as engaging and interactive as classroom learning, and the range of available courses grows every year. Today, many of The Chang School's certificates can be earned entirely online.

4. Partner with educational institutions to design the training you need

Continuing education is becoming increasingly modular and customizable. That's good news for employers and employees with specific training requirements. If all you need is a primer in a narrow skill set, you can get it.

Employers can participate in designing curricula tailored to, and delivered in, their workplace. Employees can expand their core competencies at their own pace through project-based programs like The Chang School's Experiential Learning Exchange.

We can solve mal-employment – and we must

The costs of inaction are high – but the benefits of solving mal-employment are far-reaching. After all, when people have access to targeted and practical training that gives them the opportunity to work to their full potential, they are happier, their employers are more successful and Canada's economy is stronger.

And how did a recent OECD report suggest we start tackling unemployment and mal-employment? One necessary step, it argued, is to "invest in high-quality lifelong learning opportunities." I couldn't have said it better. Whether it's through formal education, workplace mentoring or informal peer-to-peer coaching, we can solve this challenge – and we must.

Marie Bountrogianni is Dean of The G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University