ScoreCard

BOUND BY RED TAPE

We draw immigrants with top skills. We’re still not doing enough to let theirs work.

Mary Janigan May 10 2004
ScoreCard

BOUND BY RED TAPE

We draw immigrants with top skills. We’re still not doing enough to let theirs work.

Mary Janigan May 10 2004

BOUND BY RED TAPE

ON THE ISSUES

We draw immigrants with top skills. We’re still not doing enough to let theirs work.

Mary Janigan

HIS PLIGHT IS all the more wrenching because his c.v. is so stellar. For 22 years, he has worked everywhere, from his birthplace in Ahmadabad, India, to Bombay to Oman and Canada, always in the technical field of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning. But even though his Ottawa employers have put him in charge of prestigious projects for the last three years, he still cannot call himself a professional engineer. And he is so fearful of the accrediting authorities he asks to remain unnamed.

His story is sadly familiar. Arriving as a landed immigrant in January 2001, the now 44-year-old engineer expected that three years of solid experience would show he could handle climate extremes and building codes. But when an accreditation panel finally examined him in March, the members asked theoretical mechanical questions. “It made me nervous,” he says. “I was an electrical engineering graduate—but I have always worked in heating and ventilation which is a specialized discipline.” He fumbled his answers. Now he must write an exam, based on theories he has rarely used and long forgotten. “My wife and I cry all the time,” he says. “I am qualified and honest. I pay taxes. I do the same work as engineers who work beside me—but I am paid less. I slog, absolutely slog, to show I am hard-working. But I am thinking of leaving my profession.”

"1 am qualified. I do the same work as engineers who work beside mebut I am paid less. I am thinking of leaving my profession.’

Help is on the way, however belated. Last February, Ottawa cobbled together an extraordinary 12-department task force, ranging from Human Resources to Health, to expedite immigrant integration into the workforce. Bureaucrats are working with more than 700 groups, including the provinces, provincial accreditation bodies, employers, unions, community groups and educators, to find ways to smooth the transition into Canada.

First, they are tackling the problems of engineers, doctors and nurses. Then, they will use that approach for other trades and professions. “This is a highly complex issue including everything from language proficiency to skills upgrading to the development of a way to do pan-Canadian assessments of skills,” says Hedy Fry, parliamentary secretary to Immigration Minister Judy Sgro, who is responsible for foreign credential recognition. “It is a priority: fewer immigrants are finding work in their profession. We now have a new way to work across departments. And we will present a plan soon.”

The engineers are moving to help newcomers. With federal funding, the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers will present recommendations to its annual meeting in mid-May. The challenge is huge: each provincial body has different licensing rules. Among the many problems is how to help immigrants get the required Canadian experience. (The total required experience varies among provinces.) Can they devise internships? Could new arrivals teach in colleges with staff shortages? Then there is the exam: how do skilled professionals remember long-forgotten theories? “The exam is a huge barrier,” says Ottawa’s Corinne Prince-St-Amand, who is co-ordinating this labour market push. “One way is a more practical assessment, instead of a written test, to make sure they have the skills to meet our standards.”

Nothing will happen overnight. So the Ottawa engineer keeps working—often, ironically, on systems in federal buildings. “There is something basically wrong,” he says. He sighs. “I’m thinking of opening a store.”

Mary Janigan is a political and policy writer. mary.janigan@macleans.rogers.com