Ratna Omidvar is executive director of the Global Diversity Exchange at Ryerson University and chair of Lifeline Syria.
Canada will welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February, and many are destined for the work force faster than we might think.
In an optimal situation, job-ready Syrians will enter positions they are qualified to fill, at their skill level or with opportunity for growth. We know this won't be easy.
Our country faces chronic underemployment of immigrants, meaning that newcomers are employed – but driving taxis with engineering degrees. By one estimate, this lost opportunity costs the economy more than $20-billion. Immigrants who are also visible minorities are systematically underpaid for equal work. And getting a job in the first place is more difficult if your name is Samir, rather than Matthew.
Refugees may face extra hurdles. Not the legal kind – they are permanent residents on their way to citizenship, with the right to work, open bank accounts and open businesses – but situational. In addition to the anxieties of immigrating to a new home, they may be dealing with grief and trauma. Some have been unemployed or working survival jobs since Syria's civil war began. Refugees may not have all their belongings, academic transcripts and evidence of professional credentials and work experience. They may not speak English or French.
The "refugee gap" is shared by industrialized countries. In a review of research in countries with resettlement programs, such as Canada, the United Nations refugee agency found that even after factors such as education, skills and language are controlled, refugees still underperform compared with other immigrants.
Perceptions may play a role. A recent survey of German companies found that employers viewed refugees as largely unskilled workers, and 92 per cent thought lack of language skills would be a barrier to employment. More research is needed to understand the impact of these perceptions, or misperceptions, on the ability of qualified refugees to get hired.
But Canada is not Europe. And we do have something we didn't have before: unprecedented enthusiasm and leadership from Canada's private sector to support the Syrian newcomers. Private companies are front and centre in the Canadian response to this crisis. Many see it as a business and moral imperative.
There have been private sponsorships by groups of colleagues at companies such as KPMG LLP, Goldblatt Partners LLP and Torys LLP. There have been donations by Wind Mobile Corp., financial support by Canadian National Railway Co. and new refugee banking services developed by Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Bank of Nova Scotia. There have been concrete offers of employment by Danby Products Ltd. and other businesses in Guelph, Ont.
For the thousands of Syrian newcomers willing and able to work, a job will be top of mind on arrival. It's up to Canadians to help leverage their talent quickly and fully. We should bear in mind that 25,000 is just the start – a lot more talent will be on the way.
We will only get this right with all hands on deck.
One step will be to articulate a skills profile on Syrian refugees. Anecdotally, we know Syrians are as diverse as Canadians in their skill sets, languages and education levels. We collect rich data on refugees entering Canada, but it's not aggregated and not publicly available.
Connecting the incoming talent to opportunity will require imagination and change. It will demand innovation in work places, training, mentoring, job-matching, organizational co-ordination and delivery of products and services. This degree of change will leave a lasting mark on economic inclusion in Canada. What a great moment for receiving communities, and for future waves of newcomers.