Canadian Consulting Engineer

Opinion: Immigrant Engineers and Licensing

May 1, 2014
By John Boyd, P.Eng.

Across Canada, the require­ments for registration as a professional engineer are consistent. The person must have an ethical and mature character, a Bachelor’s degree from an accredited Canadian engineering program or equivalent, and...

Across Canada, the require­ments for registration as a professional engineer are consistent. The person must have an ethical and mature character, a Bachelor’s degree from an accredited Canadian engineering program or equivalent, and four years of acceptable work experience (of which one must be Canadian). They must succeed in the professional practice examination, and have the ability to communicate in the official language of the province in question.

These requirements are not arbitrary but reflect the obligation of our registration bodies to protect the safety of the public. They are necessary so that our society can trust the competence, integrity, and professional knowledge of the codes and standards of the practicing engineer. Dismantling them would not be consistent with our professional obligations.

Yet the existence of this registration procedure is increasingly being seen as discriminatory towards immigrants who wish to practice the engineering profession in Canada.

In a recent case (Mihaly v The Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists, and Geophysicists of Alberta), the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal handed down its decision that “… Mr. Mihaly has succeeded in establishing that the Examination Standard and the Experience Standard used by APEGGA to assess his educational credentials, without more individualized assessment or exploration of other options, constitutes discrimination which cannot be justified under the Act.” The decision is being challenged in court, but in other provinces similar Human Rights Tribunals and Commissions are expressing the same sort of reservations. This is clearly an issue that we need to address comprehensively.

I have just finished carefully reading the Mihaly decision (all 67 pages of it), and while I remain convinced of my personal opinion that Mr. Mihaly was not discriminated against (as I understand the meaning of the word), the essence of the tribunal’s argument is that the professional registration body needed to do more to help Mr. Mihaly and others in a similar situation make the transition from their place of origin to practice in Canada.

For many decades we have successfully grown our country by encouraging good people from around the world to move here, make it their home, become citizens, and contribute their skills and abilities to our collective knowledge and experience. The high standard of living that makes Canada so attractive to these newcomers arises in no small part because of the quality and consistency of our engineering work. Yet for an immigrant with an engineering background, acceptance as a Canadian professional engineer can be an unexpectedly onerous process. Many immigrants have successfully transferred their credentials from their point of origin by this process, but for others it is difficult.

The validation process

There are three hurdles to becoming licensed. The first is the equation of the applicant’s educational credentials to Canadian educational credentials (sometimes by means of a technical examination). The second is the requirement for at least a year of Canadian experience, and proof of another three years of foreign engineering experience. The third is the professional practice examination that tests the applicant’s knowledge of Canadian ethics and applicable law. This examination is a requirement regardless of the applicant’s previous experience elsewhere.

Young professionals raised and trained in this country get their knowledge from accredited Canadian universities and acquire their experience working in junior positions under the direct supervision of a professional engineer. Immigrants validate their knowledge either through the Washington Accord, bilateral mutual recognition agreements between Engineers Canada and their country of origin (such agreements recognize a country’s certification process as equivalent to ours), or through the extensive database of thousands of educational institutions maintained by our registration bodies from previous applications. Unfortunately many thousands of other foreign educational establishments are not part of our experience network and the process of accrediting knowledge often requires validation by examination. For working professionals who have many years of experience in their country of origin, going through an examination process in Canada can be galling.

The acquisition of appropriate Canadian experience requires the immigrant to work for a year in a supervised role. During this period, the applicant also accumulates the knowledge necessary to pass the professional practice examination. It means finding work in an organization that is sufficiently forward thinking to accept that the employee’s role will be limited for the period of the licence registration process. It is an unfortunate fact, however, that finding such an organization can be very difficult for an immigrant – the job is necessary to get the experience and the experience is necessary to qualify fully for the job.

What should we do?

It does us no credit to erect barriers that frustrate our immigrants in achieving success in their transition to our country.

Yet we need to recognize that the term “engineer” means vastly different things in different countries. Many countries have no registration requirements to use the term “engineer,” and no certification of the quality and completeness of an individual’s educational training. As a result, in certain cases it is inappropriate for us to accept at face value the claim that the immigrant is qualified to practice without some form of proof (examination, supervised practice in Canada, and the like).

In our companies we need to recognize the new immigrant pool as a resource that will require a little investment to realize its potential. We need to work actively with the provincial registration bodies to identify those newcomers who could use our help to achieve professional registration, then offer them the job that makes it possible.

In our profession we need to encourage the steps that are being taken to clarify the specific requirements of the experience criteria and make the requirements more subject to formal training. The registration bodies should take whatever steps are necessary to streamline the registration process, recognizing the international agreements that are in place and are being further developed.

With our federal government we need to become much more assertive and proactive with regard to its negotiation of trade agreements that affect the profession, and in its provision of clear and concise information to prospective immigrant engineers.

These are not new ideas and there are many actions being taken across the country on all of them, but we cannot afford to be satisfied by the rate of current progress. Increasingly, engineering is becoming a global profession and in Canada we need to think of it in that context. cce

John Boyd, P.Eng. of Toronto is a former vice-president and senior principal with Golder Associates. Now “retired” he is is involved with Design First Seminars. He is a past chair of ACEC-Canada and past president of FIDIC, the international federation of consulting engineers.


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