The Emperor Drives a Taxi – Immigrants and the Job Market

image Professionals from the Toronto immigrant community at a job seekers’ networking seminar.

You’ve reached the stage in your professional development in your home country where you believe the next step is to move to a developed country like Canada, where the media images make it seem as though the possibilities are endless.

You visit the job Web sites to look at the prospects and are convinced that if you emigrated legally, you’d bound to be able to get a cherry pick. If you’re from some Caribbean territories, you’re surprised at the speed and ease with which Canadian Immigration has admitted you to the country, based on your academic and skills qualifications.

You quite likely arrive at Pearson International bubbling with enthusiasm, eager to pursue your “new life in Canada” as the brochures and documents all describe it. If you are like many, the dream will end and your new reality set in over the ensuing weeks: the employers are not knocking on your door eager to have your international skill sets; they want a vaunted “Canadian experience”.

It may not be a high, but a significant percentage of new immigrants get frustrated after their 600th application has turned up zilch and they have become disenchanted with the move down to stacking 50lb cartons of toilet products on a factory, warehouse or shop floor after a career designing buildings, implementing engineering projects or writing communications strategies back home.

It is to overcome such hurdles that about 400 “new” immigrants were accommodated at a day long “Power of Networking” seminar a recent weekend in November, by Triec (Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council).

Apart from the centerpiece morning plenary led by motivational speaker Mike Lipkin, there were concurrent sector-specific breakout events bringing the immigrants into contact with employers, regulatory/credential bodies, professional associations, educational institutions, government and successfully employed skilled immigrants.

Lipkin, himself an immigrant from South Africa, in an invigorating style, had the audience in rapt attention as he dished out advice on how to address the challenge of the job hunt – volunteering, joining coop programmes, networking, mental and physical fitness and self motivation.

“Never stop learning,” he inveighed the audience. “I want to transform myself. Don’t be the same person in a year’s time. For example, if there are no engineering jobs, what do you need to transform to what’s needed – to go where you need to go? he asked.

“You may say, ‘I was the emperor back home.’ That doesn’t mean anything now.”

Many of the participating institutions have acted not just out of altruism – to see immigrants get a fair shake. That was why Marylin Kanee, diversity and human rights advisor at the city’s Mt Sinai Hospital was there, because as she explained, the institution was founded to treat the immigrant and Jewish communities to provide a place for Jewish doctors to intern during an ear of discrimination. Today, Kanee reports, the staff comprise half immigrants.

TD Bank for its part understands the need for diversity in its staff if its business must thrive in a rapidly expanding community of newcomers.

Similarly, Proctor and Gamble has shepherded Communications, Advertising, Marketing Professionals (CAMP), a networking organization of internationally trained professionals in the communications, advertising, and marketing sectors, cofounded by Alan Rego after he joined the company in 2005, on the principle of immigrants helping immigrants.

There were, as mentioned, successful immigrants, who came and shared their experiences, many of them unfortunately, in what may be termed the unemployment industry, and like Lipkin their contributions are to motivate. And there were, happily, others with success on their own professional terms.

Reywen Bigirimana, originally from Burundi (speaks his mother tongue Kirundi, Swahili, French, English, Russian “and a little German”), an engineer with multinational mining company Aker Metals’ Toronto office and Caryl Registe, from Dominica, a human resources professional with Legal Aid Ontario, shared their experiences with Abeng News.

Caryl Registe – Human Resource Professional

Abeng News: What are your feelings about your experiences? What went through your mind when you encountered the blockage to getting a job?

Registe: It was incredulous since there were so many positions in my field and especially some of the specialist areas in HR. I applied for positions at my level and below and in most cases did not score and invitation to an interview. I couldn’t understand why.

Abeng News: Did you believe that it was just, your having the qualification and Canadian training, and not being able to walk into a job based on merit?

Registe: I thought it was unfair for a number of reasons. I came into Canada on the Skilled Workers’ Program which I considered as an invitation to work in Canada. One of the things that gained me points in the program was my Canadian education. Thus it didn’t make sense to me that employers didn’t recognize it.

When I studied Human Resources Management (HRM) I could apply practically everything I learnt to the practices of the organization I worked with in my country. Concepts, programs and practices which awed other students were commonplace to me. So, it seemed that HRM in Dominica was HRM in Canada.

Abeng News: How did that impact on your feeling of your own self worth and image?

Registe: At first I was hopeful, undaunted and unscathed by the rejection, and actually looked forward to facing the next challenge. However, by month 7, the whole situation began to wear me down. The only time I remember not working was when while I was studying in Canada. It’s scary not to be able to work and to support yourself. By the time I met my mentor in the 9th month, I was close to zero on confidence. I remember him telling me, “You’re smiling but your eyes are sad.”

Abeng News: With the experience you have gained and the path to getting a job, how appropriate is this system of assistance?

Registe: I believe COSTI* was great for me because they pair up mentees with someone in their specific field. I’ve been through other programs where that didn’t happen. That made a big difference. My mentor was also a recent immigrant so my hope immediately soared. I think COSTI also takes time to look at the organization and the positions that the mentors hold in these organizations and that is also important since the mentors can offer more meaningful assistance.

They also give you the flexibility to switch if you want to. In some instances, the relationships just don’t work.

Abeng News: How could there be wider social change to embrace immigrants to make it easier for them to get jobs based more on merit than networks?

Registe: I think there should be a closer link between what the immigration programs say and the reality on the ground. You either correct the language or you put programs in place to integrate people. There has to be an honest attempt.

I think that some of the programs offered are too light, for want of a better expression. They would probably assist someone out of high school but not necessarily beyond that level. And that’s where the honesty comes in. A lot of the programs, job fairs etc. I’ve been to appeared to have been set up just so that someone could say they’ve done their job but there was no substance to it.

They didn’t help me. So someone needs to recognize that there are different levels and cater to that.

Some of the programs don’t go far enough. They should make the link between an immigrant and an organization. It’s not a promise of a job but just to say here are some possibilities.

Also, a lot of the employees or the agencies have the attitude that you’re an immigrant so you shouldn’t expect anything more, and that’s very discouraging. A closer link should be made between the services provided and the values of the employees in these agencies who assist immigrants.

The agencies should be accountable for the funds they receive in the sense that their stats should not just show how many people they’ve processed but they should also be audited and held accountable for the people they’re supposed to assist. Reduce funding for those who don’t have hits to give them some incentive to create more meaningful programs. Some of them need to get with the program. For example, most of them still hold that cold calling is the thing to do but it’s just a no-no in a lot of organizations.

Abeng News: What suggestions would you pass on to other potential immigrants who may face similar situations as you have?

Registe: It’s easy for me now because I have a job to say don’t give up hope but that’s the first thing I would say, “Don’t give up hope.”

Do your homework. The Internet opens a lot of possibilities, not just in job searches but in preparation for interviews and for the workplace.

Be prepared to spend long hours. I attacked my job search as if it were a job. I spent most of my waking hours doing research.

My mentor told me something that I won’t forget, “Don’t sell yourself short”. Now that might mean different things for different people because of circumstances but if you have the transferable skills, qualifications and experience and you can wait it out, do that.

If you need to do survival jobs do that but your goal alive.

Be flexible. If you have to change the way you do things, do so. A resume which I used in Dominica may not work here. I had to rework my resume a hundred times. I had to learn to network.

Do volunteer work, if you can. It looks good on your resume and you get to interact with people and build your network.

If you can, learn something in the meantime. It keeps you sharp and up to date with the changes in your field or some other area. I started working towards professional certification in my field while I was job hunting. So, when this position came up and said you should have the HR designation or be working towards it, it worked in my favour.

Don’t isolate yourself. You never know what connections you can make.

Nothing is going to be handed to you. You have to got out there and get it.

*COSTI, a community based multicultural agency specifically mandated to provide services to new Canadians and their families, originated with the amalgamation, in 1981, of two major service agencies, COSTI (formerly Centro Organizzativo Scuole Tecniche Italiane) and the IIAS (Italian Immigrant Aid Society), each of which had a lengthy and proud history of service in the immigrant community.

Rey BigirimanaRey Bigirimana – Engineer and Polyglot

Abeng News: When did you move to Canada?

Bigirimana: I came to Canada in 2000 after I graduated in Russia as a civil engineer.

Abeng News: Why Canada?

Bigirimana: Canada was a land of opportunity and I got more information about the beauty of the country, the people, the muti-cultural way of living and I got attracted.

Abeng News: What did you encounter when you came?

Bigirimana: When I came I was 32 and I was full of energy hoping to go an grab a job – at that tome when I finished university in Russia, I was working as a construction engineer and when I came here I had enough experience and was just ready to go and grab a job – but that did not happen right away.

I realized there were a lot of obstacles so I need to go back and take some courses and do networking with other professionals.

Abeng News: What were some of the obstacles?

Bigirimana: What happened is Canadian employers most of the time, they assume that newcomers don’t really understand how to do the job and one of the obstacles is the language barrier as they think you are not going to be able to communicate so you have to make sure to get you foot in the door and prove that they were not right.

Abeng News: How long did it take to get a job?

Bigirimana: It took me about two years to get my first engineering job. In between I was doing a survival job in bilingual customer service. Even if it was a survival job I learned how to communicate and improve my English.

Abeng News: What did you do to prepare yourself?

Bigirimana: I did not lose any hope that one day I would be able to work again as an engineer. I continued taking courses and networking with engineering companies and got to know the Acces company which linked me to Aker Solutions. I had to pass some exams for Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO) in order to qualify and become a professional.

Abeng News: How long have you been with the company?

Bigirimana: I have been with the company now five years. I moved from intermediate to full engineer now I’m a senior. It took three years to move from intermediate to senior estimator/scheduler.

Abeng News: Do you have a family?

Bigirimana: I have a wife and two kids, 10 and two-and-a-half. My wife has the same engineering background as me and once I established myself in the company, she managed to get a job there and is working as an engineer as well.

Abeng News: What would be your advice to newcomers?

Bigirimana: The first thing I would say is link with communities doing the work they do: network. The second thing, make sure they have enough information about their background and if they have to move from Ontario to a different province and not to be afraid to do so.

     

Mark Lee

About Mark Lee

Editor, author and writer with career spanning print, radio, television and new media.

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