Credit to Credentials

Shoshana Sherrington

So you’re in a taxi with a friend.  The seat smells like fake leather and cigarettes.  The driver has the radio blasting and you have no idea what language that is.  Every now and then someone cuts you off and you jerk as the breaks slam. After a while you hit major traffic.  You fidget and check your watch.  This had better not last long.  You look out the back and see a mass of cars behind you.  As you turn back around, your friend starts shaking and collapses.  His eyes are rolling he’s not breathing.  You immediately panic and start screaming at the driver “get us to a hospital now!”  And that’s when you find out that your driver . . . is actually a doctor.

You’ve probably heard the joke that the safest place to be in Canada is in a taxi because the driver is probably a doctor.  Turns out he has a doctorate from India where he began his practice and has been living in Canada for about 7 years.  Not that you’re complaining, but why is he driving a cab?

(Intro recording) I’m Shoshana Sherrington and this episode is called Credit to Credentials.

Newsflash: About 50% of Torontonians are immigrants (Statistics Canada).  That’s one in every two people you see.  A lot of these people are professionally trained.  They have degrees and professional experience. How do we know that?  Because if you have a degree, you get preference on the waiting list for immigration.  We do it by a points system out of 100 points.  Speaking English earns 24 points.  Having a degree and work experience gets a joint 46 points.  You only need to get 67 out of 100 points to win this immigration lottery.  Add it up, and these professional immigrants easily have 70 points.  They have a higher chance at getting here, so many if not most of the immigrants who make it will be professionals. (Young, 402)

So we’re basically asking these people to come.  We have designed this system to favor them. We score them high, make them feel valued and needed.  But our admission criteria and employment criteria don’t match up, because when they come here, no one will hire them or accept their degrees.  They can’t get jobs.  7% of immigrants with degrees are unemployed (Statistics Canada), and just as many, if not more are underemployed—as in, they have work, but not in their professional field.  And even when they can get work they don’t make as much as native Canadians.  It’s like we’re lying to them and then abandoning them.

In this podcast I want to take a closer look at these professional immigrants, how and why they are struggling, and what our city can do about it.

First, let’s deal with why these skilled workers can’t get jobs.  I’ll lay out the scenario for you.  It’s a fairly typical one that unfortunately plays out pretty often.  The professional immigrant applies for a job with a company and goes for a job interview.  During the conversation, the immigrant demonstrates that they have all the hard skills—meaning the technical skills—as well as the experience to do this job.  Against other applicants, some of whom won’t have half as much experience if any, this should be an easy pick.  But the employer will politely say: “I’m sorry, but you do not have enough “Canadian experience.” 

Uh, what on earth does that mean?  They reject these immigrants based on a criteria that they can’t even fully explain.  What Canadian experience basically boils down to is the “soft skills.”  These are things like leadership, teamwork, and basically personal skills.  More specifically, the Canadian personal skills.  The employers feel that the immigrant does not understand the Canadian culture enough to be an asset to the team.  But I have to ask these employers a question here: you won’t hire them because they have no Canadian experience, but how are they supposed to get any if no one will hire them?

Everything goes downhill for the professional immigrant from here.  Once they’ve been rejected for the position that they are qualified for, one of two things will happen: they will either have to downshift, or find a new profession.  Downshifting is working in your field but in a position that you are waaaay overqualified for.  Like, a person who had been a high level accountant in a firm will be downshifted to an entry-level job, like being a clerk or an assistant. This is so frustrating for them, as they are working for their equals when they should really be working with them.  The abilities they have are wasted on these minor jobs.

If they can’t even get a job within their field, they’ll have to take on what’s called a survival job.  It’s basically work that has no relevance to their qualifications, that they take on temporarily to support their families while they try to get back in to their field.  Take Sandy Chugh, from India, who interviewed for CBC News.  He was a marketing professional and now works in a retail warehouse.  He doesn’t get to use any of his skills and is waiting for his opportunity, but says that he “doesn’t see a lot of growth.” (CBC News) Things don’t look like they’ll be changing soon.

Rejecting immigrants based on this criteria is wrong, maybe even a bit racist.  It allows employers to exercise bias in their employment choices.  And it creates a trap for immigrants, preventing them from getting any Canadian experience.  In response, Ontario actually has a policy banning the use of this criteria, but it’s a policy, not a law, and employers find a way around it.  Immigrants are still getting doors slammed in their faces, if they even get invited for an interview. (Sadakova)

To get an inside look at this issue, I interviewed Jelena Zikic.  She immigrated with her parents as a teenager, which sparked her interest in investigating the immigrant labor force.  I wanted to hear what she has to say as she has interviewed tons of professional immigrants to collect their stories for her research papers.  Jelena is an associate professor in the school of Human Resources at York University, but she spends a lot of time with other researchers on projects specifically investigating the barriers facing professional immigrants.

But before we hear from Jelena, I want to know if anyone out there is willing to open their doors to immigrant professionals.

So there’s this organization called Career Edge here in Toronto.  They are a government funded program, which is nice, because it shows that the government is aware of the situation and is making an effort to help. They are a non-profit organization that services a whole range of people in need of work. Ex-soldiers, college graduates . . . and immigrants.  What they do is set the professional immigrants up with a paid internship in a business that has work relevant to their skillset and level.  The internships last 6, 9, or 12 months and Career Edge covers their salary. The immigrant functions like a regular employee—they can get promotions and pay raises.  (Career Edge) It’s a win-win.  The immigrant professional gets to do what they do best and gets money to support their family.  It’s also an emotional boost, to be reaccepted into their field.  And the employer also benefits, right Jelena?

Jelena: So I wrote about this in a recent study about human resource management and human capital and the importance of foreign human capital, so the importance of individuals who come from other countries and bring knowledge that’s different from our own.  What we’re finding is that employers have to employ people that live in the community that they serve.  And so, if we live in a diverse city like Toronto, our organizations on the inside have to look the way that our communities look like.  So it’s very important to have that diversity on the inside.  But, on the other hand we know from a lot of research that diversity in thought and knowledge that people from other countries bring can bring innovation and can lead to better problem solving.

So, what Jelena is saying is that employers want their staff to reflect the diversity of the customers they have.  Not only that, these bosses get a fully trained worker with experience in the field who doesn’t need any training, and who also brings new skills to the team.  Not to mention, they get all of this with zero cost to the company because Career Edge, through the government, is footing the bill.

What this proves is that employers should be begging professional immigrants to come work for them.  The benefits are huge and the company gets to show that they are progressive and in step with the modern world.  Companies that partner with Career Edge are an example to other companies across Canada.

*see Jelena’s article on foreign capital.

What Career Edge has accomplished is amazing.  Since they started in 2005, they provided over 500 internships dispersed between about 200 companies in just a few years.  The time the immigrants spend in these internships gives them that “Canadian experience” they need.  Afterwards, doors that had been shut before open up to them. Suddenly, they are able to get jobs that match their experience and qualifications.

Let’s take the example of a man named Olmer, a South American immigrant with full degrees in Computer Science and Industrial Engineering, plus 12 years of experience in the IT field.  Like many others, Olmer couldn’t get a job at his level.  Then Career Edge set up an internship for him in the Ontario Ministry of Labour. He spent 6 months there, accomplishing a wide variety of tasks that not only used his talents, but also allowed him to show his ‘soft skills’ such as leadership ability.  After the internship, the Ontario Ministry of Labour invited him to join their team.  The time Olmer spent in the internship helped him to improve his skills and provided him with networking opportunities that helped him join the Toronto labour force. (Young, 405)

However, no matter how good the numbers sound, we’re still talking about half of Toronto.  There are so many people out there, and they can’t reach all of them. And, this is only half the problem . . .

Jelena:  One of the main differences we have to make in this line of research on this topic is whether individuals are from regulated or non-regulated professions.

Jelena’s specialty is actually foreign doctors, who she has interviewed extensively, so her examples are doctors versus IT workers.  Doctors are a regulated profession—they need serious licensing.  IT’s are non-regulated—they have university qualification, but no licensing requirement to work.  So the people who have to go through the employers—those are the IT type guys.  Career Edge works great for them, setting them up with open-minded companies.  But a doctor has a totally different problem.

You see, different countries have different standards for qualification.  Like, in some countries you can practice with a BA, while here you need a Masters.  So these foreign doctors, when they get to Canada, have to go through retraining programs.  The government has set up bridge programs to fill the knowledge gap between the Canadian requirements and the foreign requirements.  Without completing these programs and exams, you may not practice medicine in Canada. 

Just hold up there for a second.  I mean, do you know how long it takes to become a doctor?  And we make them do it again?  I’m sorry, but don’t you think that sounds cruel? 

And that’s not the only issue with this system.  Like, since they aren’t allowed to practice yet, then they’re out of a job and they’re not earning any money.  So while they’re studying for medical exams—again—they have to work to support themselves and their family.  In jobs outside of their profession.  Which, if they’ve been a doctor, is pretty hard to take.  For example, Jelena interviewed a man who had been a doctor for one of her research papers who was working as a night-time security guard while he studied for his exams.

Jelena: He’d take a nap in the morning, a few hours, and then go to the library, and just stay there during the day and study for his exams.  This was his way of coping and really working around the clock almost, but his persistence, his passion, his desire to become a doctor again was the motivating force.  This professional identity of trying to be a doctor again was what was pushing him to pursue this.

While this man could work on his degree, he kept focus on who he was.  But not everyone has that opportunity.  The waiting list for relicensing and government bridge programs is HUGE. And it’s based on assessment, not how long you have been in line.  In other words, anyone who is slightly smarter than you gets pushed ahead on the waiting list, even if you have the same degree they do and you’ve been here longer than they have. You could wait for years, or even forever (Augustine).  And if you don’t practice medicine for several years . . . you lose your license to practice at all.  So to sum this up, the government won’t let them practice until they’ve completed these programs.  But they demand that you practice medicine or lose your license.  Does that even make sense?  How is someone supposed to pull that off?

Jelena: So one woman that I remember clearly was volunteering in Sunnybrook hospital with a team of researchers, and the leading person was a surgeon—and she was a surgeon too, in Iran. And she was simply doing filing.  But, being in a hospital setting, collaborating potentially with these researchers and doctors was at least helping her know more about the medical profession in Canada.  But she would go back every six months, or a year, to Iran, to practice.  She’d leave her family here and go back to her job, then come back to Canada again to redo her exams.

I personally can’t imagine doing that.  Paying for frequent flights in the fight to keep a degree I’ve already earned?  It’s expensive and draining.  Many people can’t do it.  They have to resign themselves to the fate that they’ll never be a doctor again.

And Career Edge can’t help these people.  They are very clear that they do not service the regulated professions. Medicine isn’t a business. This is in the hands of the government.  No organization can give you back your PHD.  If you can’t keep up with your exams, your practice, and your bills, you have no choice but to quit and do something else with your life.

This has a deep emotional and psychological effect on these doctors.  I can imagine when they were in university they had the same dreams our Canadian medical students have.  They want to help people and interact with patients, they love science and are amazed by the human body.  These passions are a part of their personality and their position as doctors is a part of their identity.  This professional identity defines them to an extent.  So to forcibly remove this part of them and throw them into another profession—that’s an attack on who they are and takes away some of their sense of self.  You don’t become a doctor imagining that you could do something else.  A businessman is flexible and dynamic—part of his identity is to adapt to changes and experiment with new things.  An immigrant businessman could learn to cope with having to switch professions.  But a doctor?  What else are they supposed to do?

This erasing of their professional identity, which is not limited to doctors has a serious effect on their mental health.  These professional immigrants experience severe depression and anxiety.  To summarize in the words of one engineer: “Not finding work in our line, after so much time, it impacts our health.  It creates confusion, disappointment, delusion, disillusionment, and creates a lot of stress in both the personal and professional life.” (Dean and Wilson, 193)

*see Jelena’s article on professional identity.

The craziest thing is that we reportedly have a labour shortage.  Maybe not so much in Toronto, but many cities are crying out for more doctors, more professionals.  The native population isn’t enough to fill these roles.  And we have all of these professionally trained immigrants, ready to work, desperate for work, but not allowed to work.  What a waste of resources. If we let them, they’d take those jobs in seconds. (Calgary Herald)

*see the article from the Calgary Herald for some shocking stats.

In a nutshell, the problem is huge. It’s too big even for organizations like Career Edge to solve—too many people and too many complicated situations.  You just can’t help everybody.  But we can’t just ignore 50% of Toronto either.  As a multicultural, accepting country, we have a social responsibility to make a change.  We have to become more accepting and something needs to be done to make the relicensing process more efficient.

I read in a new immigrant journal that the Canadian government says the situation is actually improving and they’re going to keep bringing in professional immigrants (Munoz).  They’ll even increase their professional immigrant intake from 260 000 a year to 300 000 (CBC News).  They’re trying to drive our economy forward with these foreign professionals (CBC).  Now, all of these people should be able to come to Canada.  I’m not saying closing the border is a solution.  But we have got to be straight with these people, because I don’t think that the current professional immigrants would agree that things are getting better.  We need to take a shot of reality here.  If we’re going to welcome these immigrants, let’s make it a real welcome.  Let’s actually help them adjust and be successful in our country.

And next time you’re feeling superior to the driver, security guard, call center guy, or janitor—remember that they might be smarter than you.  And could maybe even save your life someday.

(Podcast Outro)



Augustine, Hon. Jean “Immigrant Professionals and Alternative Routes to Licensing: Policy Implications for Regulators and Government.” Office of the Fairness Commissioner, Toronto, Ontario, Aug. 2015.

“Career Edge.” Career Edge, 2016,

Dean, Jennifer A. and Kathi Wilson. “‘Education? It is Irrelevant to My Job Now.  It Makes Me Very Depressed . . .’: Exploring the Health Impacts of Under/Unemployment Amongst             Highly Skilled Recent Immigrants to Canada.”  Ethnicity and Health, vol. 14, no. 2, March 10, 2009, pp 185-204.  

Dharssi, Alia. “Skilled Immigrants Wasting Their Talents in Canada.” Calgary Herald, 19 Sept. 2016

Dunn, Trevor. “Skilled Immigrants Struggle to Find Jobs as Government Plans to Welcome More.” CBC News Toronto, CBC News Canada, 1 Nov. 2016

“Immigration and Ethno-cultural Diversity in Canada.” Statistics Canada, Government of Canada, 2011.

“Labour Force Characteristics By Immigrant Status of Population Aged 25 to 54, and by Educational Attainment.” Statistics Canada, Government of Canada, Aug. 1, 2016

Munoz, Claudio. “Newcomer: Immigrants of All Ages.” Canadian Newcomer, 7 Dec. 2010.

Sadakova, Yaldaz. “Don’t Ask Skilled Immigrants for Canadian Work Experience.” Benefits Canada, 22 Dec. 2015

Young, Melina. “Labour Market Integration of High Skilled Immigrants: Maximizing Knowledge Spillover in Toronto.” Local Economy, vol. 22, no. 4, Nov. 2007, pp. 401-408.


Recommended Sources

Anwar, Arif. “Canadian Immigration Policy: Micro and Macro Issues with the Points Based            Assessment System.” Canadian Ethnic Studies, vol. 46, no. 1, 2014, 169-179, DOI:           10.1353/ces.2014.0004

Chen, Cynthia et al. “The Presence of Over-Qualification and Its Association with Health Status AmongOccupationally Active New Immigrants to Canada.” Ethnicity and Health, vol. 15, no. 6, Dec. 2010, pp. 601-619.

“Ontario Bridge Training.” Ontario Bridge Training, Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration, 18 July 2014

Somerville, Kara and Scott Walsworth. “Admission and Employment Criteria Discrepancies: Experiences of Skilled Immigrants in Toronto.” Migration and Integration, vol. 11, June              23, 2010, DOI: 10.1007/s12134-010-0138-4

Zikic, Jelena. "Skilled Migrants' Career Capital as a Source of Competitive Advantage: Implications for Strategic HRM." The International Journal of Human Resource Management vol. 26 no.10 (2015): 1360-81. Web. 8 Dec. 2016

Zikic, Jelena, and Julia Richardson. "What Happens when You can’t be Who You are: Professional Identity at the Institutional Periphery." Human Relations vol. 69 no.1 (2016): 139-68. Web. 8 Dec. 2016