Canadian Consulting Engineer


June 1, 2004
By Rosalind Cairncross, P.Eng.

It is a long, long way from Xi'an, the legendary city of the terracotta soldiers, or Beijing or any other Chinese city, to Scarborough, Ontario. The seven immigrant engineers who gathered at a local Pizza Hut recently, have all made the journey. A...

It is a long, long way from Xi’an, the legendary city of the terracotta soldiers, or Beijing or any other Chinese city, to Scarborough, Ontario. The seven immigrant engineers who gathered at a local Pizza Hut recently, have all made the journey. At the end of the road lies Canada, a country that welcomes them, that needs their skills and experience and talent. Doesn’t it?

Seven is not a large sample of people but their experiences are shared by many of the engineers and other well-educated and experienced professionals who come to Canada each year.

Among the group of seven are chemical, civil, mechanical, transportation and computer engineers. They have six masters’ degrees between them and collectively they have decades of engineering experience in China. In Canada, only one is licensed and one is in the process of trying to obtain a licence.

Fortune has smiled on three of them; they have landed appropriate jobs in their fields. But two are still looking for work, and two have unstable jobs unrelated to engineering. The circumstances of those who are still job-hunting are not new and not uncommon. Stories about immigrant professionals who are not able to find suitable work have gained the status of urban myth; the taxi-driver who is an engineer, the convenience store owner with a Ph.D.

While the negative effects of immigrants’ underemployment are understood to be unpleasant for the individual, the negative effects on the economy are not always as obvious. Yet both the human and economic consequences are real and a cause for concern.

In 2002, a group of concerned citizens in Toronto, for example, formed the Toronto City Summit Alliance committed to addressing the decline of the city. They identified the poor integration of immigrant labour in the Toronto region as one of the factors contributing to the city’s decline. By their calculation, of almost 100,000 immigrants coming to the Toronto region year after year, six out of every 10 will make a downwardly mobile shift into a career other than that they were educated for, resulting in a net loss of $554 million to the city’s economy.

Engineers are drawn to Canada for a variety of reasons. They’re influenced by the media’s positive portrayal of Canada and particularly its U.N. ranking as one of the best countries in which to live. They’re persuaded by emigration agency advertisements, or they simply come to join friends and family.

There are several reasons why these skilled and professional immigrants are underemployed: they may lack language and cultural skills, they may lack social and professional networks, they may require a licence before being allowed to practise. They always initially lack Canadian work experience. The group at Pizza Hut is keenly aware they have language and social disadvantages. They are also aware that the competition in the field is stiff.

Programs and services to help immigrants in the professions have developed over the years but they tended to be somewhat scattered. The Toronto City Summit Alliance decided to combine the different strategies for solving the problem in one body known as the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC). Its mission is “to create a vibrant and sustainable bridge that links immigrant skills with labour market needs in the Toronto Region.” The council gathers together employers, community agencies, labour organizations, post-secondary education institutions, governments and the professional regulatory bodies, including Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO).

Ratna Omidvar is the executive director of TRIEC. She has been working to help immigrant professionals settle in Canada for many years and has followed the trends and growing urgency of the issue over time. “The problem is now 15 years old,” she says. She cites the Ontario government’s Lee-Cummings Task Force Report on the Trades and Professions of 1988. “It started to pinpoint the problems with educated and skilled professionals and employment and licensing,” she says. “Today, the same problem exists but it has grown in magnitude and scope significantly for a number of reasons.”

Help with licensing

Both Professional Engineers Ontario, the licensing and regulating body, and the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE), the advocacy organization, are taking steps to assist immigrant engineers.1

Kim Allen, P.Eng., chief executive officer and registrar of PEO, is an appointed member of TRIEC and chair of its Occupational and Licensing Bridge Working Group. Naturally, he is concerned about underemployed professionals.

Kim Allen, P.Eng., chief executive officer and registrar of PEO, is an appointed member of TRIEC and chair of its Occupational and Licensing Bridge Working Group. Naturally, he is concerned about underemployed professionals.

“Approximately one-third of the 65,000 licensed professional engineers in Ontario were educated outside Canada,” he says. Consequently, assessing the credentials of internationally trained engineering graduates is an important part of PEO’s role and one that it “continually seeks to improve.”

According to Allen, the number of P.Eng. licences granted by PEO to internationally trained applicants increased by 20 per cent in the past year. Approximately 65 per cent of these applicants met PEO’s academic requirements for licensure without having to write any technical exams. And he points out that PEO allows prospective immigrants to begin the licensing process from outside Canada before they finalize their immigration plans.

A recent change to the Engineering Act was the creation of the Provisional Licence for applicants who qualify for licensing except for the required 12 months of Canadian work experience carried out under a Canadian professional engineer.

Allen suggests that the provisional licence ensures that the individual has satisfied the academic and professional practice and ethics requirements and that he or she is conversant with Canadian technical codes and engineering legislation. And he points out that PEO has yet another option that may be useful to some internationally educated graduates: the Limited Licence. “Limited licences allow qualified individuals to provide specified services in the practice of professional engineering to an employer,” says Allen. “In China, for example, people can graduate in ‘Welding Engineering.’ These individuals may benefit from a limited licence to practise engineering because their skill set could match that narrow scope.”

But the process of applying for a licence of any kind is not necessarily well understood and is sometimes perceived as mysterious by the very people who need to go through the process. Comments from the group from China at Pizza Hut include: “It is difficult,” “They will give you a hard time,” “I wasn’t working exactly as an engineer so I don’t think my Canadian experience counts.”

And licensing is but one of several hurdles immigrant engineers may encounter. Cultural assimilation is often overlooked by job applicants who focus exclusively on technical expertise. The employer wants someone who is going to fit in and be productive, not just somebody who is a technical expert.

The Pathways program run by OSPE was an attempt to bridge the gap. The pilot project consisted of six weeks of full-time classroom training in understanding workplace norms, work readiness and English communication in an engineering environment. The students were then given help in finding employment. Of the 29 participants, 16 found employment and at least two have gone on to licensure — a result that OSPE finds “far from stunning.” Despite this, the society has received over 2,500 enquiries regarding the program. The society also offers other assistance to engineers both local and foreign-trained, on its website.

Paul Martin, an OSPE board member, sees the big picture. Not all the professions are equally affected by underemployment and according to Martin the issues are quite different for engineers than, for example, for doctors.

For engineers, he says, “The problem is access to employment, particularly at
the entry level, where many internationally educated engineers will land, at least initially.”

Experience — the Catch 22

“You can get a job if you have exactly the right experience.”

“I worked in computer assisted manufacturing, exactly the same kind of job as in China. I was lucky to have worked for a well-known company in China, so they knew my company.”

“English is a problem, especially the telephone interview.”

Comments from the group chatting over pizza reflect their recent experience in Canada. For those looking for work, it is not difficult to imagine that but for some deficiency — slightly different experience, better English, a licence — she or he might have the job they were hoping for.

Every immigrant engineer wants to land an appropriate job not just for the purpose of obtaining a licence but also for sustaining themselves and their families. One of their most frequently cited problems is getting started on this path, in other words getting that crucial Canadian work experience. The requirement is often viewed as a Catch 22 where experience is needed to get a job, which they cannot get unless they have the experience.

TRIEC is approaching the problem with a variety of programs and initiatives. Ratna Omidvar describes one: “We’ve launched a program — Career Bridge — whereby an immigrant would be able to access up to four months of employment with a company. We have completed 44 internships so far. We hope to have 500. Of course, 500 is a drop in the bucket when you think of 100,000 [immigrants a year] but it is one initiative. The final objective of the program is to persuade employers over the hurdle of thinking they need [someone with] Canadian work experience. By familiarizing them with a qualified candidate, they might start thinking, ‘I don’t actually need an internship, I can just hire this person.'”

The council also wants to create a culture of mentoring whereby people are matched up with others who are established in a particular field. “Eighty per cent of jobs are accessed through professional networks. We hope to launch this … with a circle of high-profile champion mentors, the kinds of people who are immediately recognized in the public eye for doing something good,” says Omidvar. The mentors they have in mind would be acting in their own capacity, not necessarily through their employers.

Employers are, however, very much part of the third initiative Omidvar describes. The council wants to “engage employers in how they … need to be changing their systems and processes to take into account the changing demographics of this city.” She is looking for employers who have developed successful strategies for the employment of immigrants so that TRIEC can “document them, develop … a toolkit, provide training, launch a seminar series, and engage employers in the conversation.”

The reasons that employers may be reluctant to hire immigrants vary. The council wants to be able to offer them a variety of assistance. For example, if an employer doesn’t know how to assess an application, Omidvar wants to be able to say to them, “Here is a phone number. For $200, you can get this application and this person’s credentials assessed against Canadian standards.”

The kind of service Omidvar is contemplating will be useful, but will it be enough? Rowan O’Grady is with Hays Personnel in Toronto and finds it difficult to place engineers who have never worked in North America. “Ideally, the employer wants someone who has worked for their competitor,” he says. “Companies don’t know overseas companies. They want candidates who have perfect English, and who understand the Canadian work environment.” And, he adds: “There is no shortage of engineers; it is extremely competitive.” The slowdown in the economy means the employer can afford to wait for the ideal candidate.

Employers are also the key for Sathya Gnaniah. He is in charge of outreach to employers for Skills for Change, a Toronto community agency with over 20 years’ experience in immigrant settlement. The agency has been offering a comprehensive program for engineers, including co-op placements, for six years. He says positions have been harder to come by over the past two years, as engineers have been laid off. This is especially true in the information technology sector. “Ultimately, the key to getting a job lies with the corporate sector,” says Gnaniah. “It is important for the government to educate this sector and encourage it to invest [in people].”

Supply and demand

“We’ve concluded … that the overwhelming reason that recent immigrants and recent graduates can’t find jobs is that there is a general over-supply of engineers in the marketplace at the moment,” says Paul Martin, OSPE.

Despite the concerted and considerable effort being made by TRIEC and various bodies to help immigrant professionals land appropriate jobs, there is, according to Martin, a more fundamental problem regarding engineers — supply and demand. Too much of the former and too little of the latter.

Kim Allen of PEO voices similar concerns: “In the broader picture, the issues I see with the immigration policy are with supply and demand.”

The problem appears to be most acute in Toronto. Martin quotes statistics indicating that in 2001, 10,225 of the immigrants who intended to work in engineering, settled in Toronto. “In the same year, about 8,733 engineers graduated from engineering programs in all of Canada! [his emphasis]2 That’s an immigration rate of 117% of Canada’s entire graduating class settling in a city that has only 17% of Canada’s jobs. It’s no surprise that entry-level jobs are hard to find. And it’s no wonder that there are lots of angry, frustrated internationally educated engineers and recent graduates out there.

“The current situation isn’t good for recent immigrants, recent graduates, or Canada as a whole,” Martin continues. “Immigration enriches our society culturally, plus it gives us a competitive edge by giving our engineering companies experience in foreign markets. But it’s one thing to raid the rest of the world, primarily the developing world, for skilled people that we need. It’s quite another to generate an over-supply which leads to severe employment problems and causes great hardship in the lives of both recent immigrants and recent graduates. The very least we owe to both groups is access to accurate labour market information prior to their immigration or graduation.”

Finding a better balance between supply and demand in engineering is a challenge given that there is no specific tracking mechanism connecting them, either for foreign or locally trained engineers. The supply of internationally trained engineers is determined by immigration policy.

Says Allen: “Someone may think: “It’s almost as if I’ve been recruited to come here, therefore I should have a job. However, the Canadian system is designed to create a pool of talent that will compete for jobs. It would be helpful for all concerned to have accurate information of the demand geographically presented by discipline, then people could make informed decisions.”

It seems that the pool of talent is crowded right now. Both recent graduates and immigrant engineers are competing for a limited number of positions. Something will have to give.

The size and nature of the engineering pool will have to change because there are other important reasons why immigration is here to stay. TRIEC quotes estimates that by 2011, 100 per cent of Canada’s net labour force growth will depend on immigration. In Toronto, the figure has been almost reached already. The health of the economy will be closely linked to immigration to support our declining birth rate and to make up for the skill shortages in a number of areas.

The problem for many immigrant engineers may well be the lack of language skills, cultural assimilation, professional networks and so on. Courses and programs can be the remedy for these people, but they won’t help recent graduates from Canadian engineering schools who are not, in general, subject to the same obstacles. At the moment, the engi
neering field seems to be simply suffering from an over-supply of technical expertise. The fierce competition can only make it more difficult to land an engineering job whatever your background.

So what lies ahead for the group of engineers from China?

“I give myself a year….”

“If I don’t get a job, I’ll go back to school again.”

“Quite a number of people have returned to China.”

They say that friends who have returned to China have no trouble getting jobs there. The road back seems shorter and smoother than the road here, but is this the result we are hoping for when we encourage engineers to come to Canada?

Rosalind Cairncross, P.Eng. is based in Toronto and a contributing editor of Canadian Consulting Engineer.

1 Also, in 2003 the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers (CCPE) launched a three-phase, ongoing initiative, “From Consideration to Integration,” to improve the processes for integrating international-trained engineers into the engineering workforce without lowering professional standards. The project is funded by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. The council is also hoping to launch an ongoing labour market study to keep track of where engineers are needed.

2 Martin’s statistics are from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (via TRIEC for Toronto numbers) and the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers (for graduates).


One immigrant’s experience

A sturdy spirit and a great sense of humour are invaluable assets for any immigrant. Lisa (not her real name) has both in good measure. She also has a degree in structural engineering and experience in the field. She is like many of the thousands of immigrants who come to Canada each year, one whose real story cannot be told by the impersonal statistics.

When first they land in Canada, most immigrant professionals try to find the kind of professional position they are trained for in their home country. Often this quest takes a lot of trying and success is far from assured. If all efforts fail and the bills start to pile up, most people have to consider their options: accepting help from relatives, further study — or they have to settle for whatever job will allow them to keep the wolf from the door. They may become the taxi driver of urban myth or the supermarket cashier. They may be forced to take a job involving labour for which they have no training or skill. Lisa took a shortcut. Instead of trying to land a professional position, she went directly to a “labour” job despite having no experience in such work. She had her reasons.

In the fall of 1999, Lisa arrived in Toronto to find engineering jobs scarce. “There were hardly any advertisements in the newspapers.” Instead of beating the bushes of the engineering profession, she answered an advertisement for a cashier in a fast food restaurant and got the job. With not-too-fluent English, she thought she could at least meet people and earn a little money.

When she started there were only two problems: the unfamiliar Canadian coinage and the unfamiliar Canadian fast food. “I had to practise with the money and learn the names of the foods quickly. We don’t have such foods in our culture. I tried really hard but in a small restaurant, you have to do everything. I was slow and the owner shouted at me like a dog.” Here her matter of fact account is fired with indignation. “I cried and cried. Being a cashier is harder than engineering. Also, I had to travel for two hours and only got three hours’ work. Just enough to pay for transportation.” She concluded that she was not suited to the work and quit after a month.

The winter holidays were approaching and engineering jobs remained scarce. Not to be daunted, she tried another “labour” job, this time in a clothing factory. “I applied and got the job.” Clearly delighted at her luck (or agreeable presence), she says, “Every time I interviewed for a job, I got it!” This was a job in a factory where all the women knew their work very well. “I knew nothing but I could use scissors. So I got the job of cutting the threads off the pants.” She was paid by the piece and the working conditions were poor. “It was noisy and the air was bad. They wore masks but the women coughed. The owner was really nice and she encouraged me. Most of the women had worked there for more than 10 years. So I thought, ‘What about me? I should try at least one year.'” But the nature of the work, constantly snipping threads, made this impossible. “I wanted to stay there because I needed money, but after a while my shoulder was swollen and it ached so much I couldn’t sleep.” After six weeks, she had to quit.

“What next?” she thought. “After a little while I decided that I was not good at labour work. Perhaps I should try engineering again.” She laughs, but the irony does not escape her.

She landed a job in an engineering company as a drafter. The job only lasted two weeks “because the company was shrinking.” In the new year, she saw an advertisement for a structural engineer in the newspaper and sent her resume. “Later I learned that of the 200 applications, they chose seven to interview and I was one. Afterwards the boss told me that I did not get the job but I asked him if he would consider me in the future. He knew someone else at another company who was looking for someone with my skills so he sent my resume there. At the other company, the boss gave me a very easy time at the interview. I could answer all his questions. He hired me.

“It was coincidence, I was really lucky,” she says. But she adds,”I was very persistent and confident.”

Lisa is still with the company.


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