Reports

January 10, 2024

The struggle for success: a look at the barriers faced by immigrants to Canada

Immigration is important to the culture, economy, and makeup of Canada and Alberta. But changes need to be made to our existing system to ensure it is a lasting source of strength.

This publication is the latest in a series of a larger body of work on immigration, with a focus on the role of immigration in economic growth. Our goal is to inform a strategy and process for immigration that is not just numbers-driven but prosperity-driven.

Read more about our Prosperity-Driven Immigration project here.

The Bottom Line

  • The success of newcomers is vital to Canada’s prosperity, yet their potential is often unrealized.
  • For many newcomers, language proficiency is the biggest barrier. Though primary economic immigrants are typically proficient, other family members, and other immigrants, may not be.
  • Although a wide variety of settlement supports are available, limited capacity and the absence of a process to connect newcomers with services significantly undermine their effectiveness.
  • From a labour market perspective, the absence of established social and professional networks can be a challenge to securing employment in a particular field given most jobs are never publicly advertised.
  • As well, newcomers face bias due to a range of factors including: “foreign” sounding names, second-language accents, and/or foreign experience, any of which can impede entry into or success in the labour market.
  • The challenge of getting a foot in the door is more pronounced for individuals in regulated professions.
  • Ultimately, we need to do more to set individuals up for success—for the benefit of newcomers and the prosperity of Canada.

Introduction

People come to Canada for a variety of reasons but primarily with the hope of building a good and prosperous life. For many, however, it can be difficult to do so.

From the need to jump through hoops to practice in one’s profession to difficulties securing housing and employment, newcomers all too often are left feeling defeated, discouraged, and on the sidelines.

Given that immigrants represent a large and growing share of the workforce, their outcomes will increasingly determine the strength of the Canadian labour force and economy. In other words, the success or failure of newcomers is not just their own—but all of Canada’s.

This publication delves into the barriers revealed by our research, conversations with settlement organizations, and conversations with immigrants themselves.

It is worth noting that each newcomer faces a unique set of hurdles (which may or may not align with these overarching themes) and, for some (e.g., women, racialized individuals), the hurdles may be higher than for others.

With this in mind, we highlight two fundamental barriers to newcomers’ success:

  • English proficiency; and
  • Connection to available settlement services.

And three that more specifically interfere with their success in the labour market:

  • Access to a personal and professional support system;
  • Discrimination in the labour market; and
  • Recognition of foreign education, experience, and credentials.

Within each, we briefly note pockets of progress and opportunity. Ultimately, however, we conclude that we need to do more and better to set individuals up for success—for the benefit of newcomers and the prosperity of Canada.

Fundamental Barriers

English Proficiency

Official language proficiency is one of the biggest barriers for newcomers. Though it is not a barrier for every newcomer, among those for which it is, it is likely to be the biggest.

Of note, language proficiencies within an individual family may vary. It is not uncommon for one family member to be proficient in English (in the case of economic immigrants, often the “primary applicant”) but their partner or children to not be. In these situations, less proficient individuals have the support of another family member but may risk becoming excessively dependent on the English-speaking individual.

Regardless of whether a newcomer has family support, his or her language proficiency is essential for success. Without it, everything is more challenging. Communication skills are critical for virtually every aspect of integrating into Canadian life: from building relationships to finding a home to, somewhat ironically, accessing services like those that teach English.

To support language learning, various settlement organizations offer immigrants a free program called the Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada or “LINC.”

However, it is not always accessible. Settlement organizations receive an allotment of funding from the federal government that determines the total number of seats available, but this funding does not always grow in line with need.

For example, currently, settlement organizations in Alberta are facing a large influx of individuals trying to access LINC (much of this due to the large number of Ukrainian refugees immigrating to Canada) without an equivalent increase in funding. As such, some organizations report waitlists that are more than twice as long as the number of people they typically serve in a class.

Making matters worse, there is a wait to even join the waitlist. Before an individual can join the queue, they must first complete a language proficiency assessment through the Canadian Language Benchmark (CLB) and obtain a referral form. The problem is, there currently is a wait of 20-25 business days to even get that assessment. All told, individuals may have to wait as long as a year to even get into a class. As such, newcomers who have high hopes of building a successful life in Canada find themselves waiting for much-needed services, at risk of un- or underemployment, and, as a result, slipping into a poverty trap.

As Canada is set to welcome more newcomers than ever before over the next few years, the capacity of programs like LINC will need to respond to this expected increase in demand. Otherwise, an increasing number of newcomers will be left in a queue that will only grow longer with time.

Official Language Proficiency

Canada has two official languages: English and French. Though there are programs available in both languages throughout the country, French programs are primarily located in Quebec where newcomers are most likely to benefit due to the province’s French heritage and culture. Because our focus is Alberta, which is predominantly English-speaking, we focus on English language proficiency.

Connection to available settlement services

While sometimes the issue is long lines and waitlists, other times it’s poor communication. 

Canada has a comprehensive network of services to assist newcomers—for language skills and beyond. But many do not know about them.

Only 38% of adult immigrants (based on the latest data available pre-COVID) accessed settlement services within their first year of receiving Permanent Residency (PR). Though some of these individuals may not need settlement services, others may not be connected with them.

The first problem is that there is no real process or location (physical or web-based) to communicate this information. An individual receives their PR upon landing—either at a port of entry or in a government office—and is essentially sent on their way. According to a 2021 survey, only 8% of respondents learned about available services at a government office upon landing.

Meanwhile, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s (IRCC) website (which is designed to help newcomers navigate settlement organizations) is known for being months, if not years, out of date. It is so slow to update that some settlement organizations question the value of submitting changes at all.

Neither is it user-friendly. In fact, in our research to determine the number of settlement organizations in the province, IRCC’s webpage generated 1,280 search results with locations all across Canada. To determine the offerings in Alberta, we had to painstakingly scroll through numerous pages to identify them.

For their part, settlement organizations work to fill the information gap through marketing and communications efforts but have limited funds with which to do so.

Ultimately, this puts the onus on newcomers to actively seek out specific services, but this leads to the second problem: finding the right service can be quite complicated.

In Alberta alone, there are around 90 settlement organizations. Each one has its own philosophy and approach, and offers a distinct variety of programs and resources, some of which overlap with other organizations. On top of that, different arrangements that may be needed such as transportation, program times and lengths, and childcare all vary by location.

This means that, beyond identifying what is available, an individual needs to determine which is best—in a convenient location, and with the right blend of programming and resources.

To be sure, it is good to have a diverse marketplace of settlement services. There is no one newcomer, and individuals have unique personal, family, and cultural needs. However, the abundance of options can be overwhelming to navigate in the absence of a tool or umbrella organization that matches newcomers with programs. On top of that, promotional materials and websites are often only available in English.

Meanwhile, it is difficult for newcomers who live in rural areas for the opposite reason: options can be limited. Individuals might encounter extra challenges like having to travel long distances for services, limited access (days/times), and organizations with inadequate capacity to help them (many of whom operate thanks to the support of volunteers). To fill this gap, employers sometimes offer transportation to work, a place to live, and/or other resources so newcomers can more easily integrate into the community and labour force. However, this is not always possible nor reasonable for the employer to fully take on.

To combat this issue, the Calgary Newcomers Collaborative powered by Gateway (a collaboration among settlement organizations) created a project called the Immigrant Arrival Centre to connect with newcomers as soon as individuals land at the Calgary airport.

Gateway’s objective is to ensure newcomers do not have to research or “shop” around to find programs and services best suited for their needs. Instead, Gateway assesses needs using a standardized test and then refers them to the best organization that can provide support.  

However, it falls short of connecting with everyone (i.e., individuals who do not fly into Calgary) and can be challenging to facilitate. One challenge is these kinds of initiatives require organizations who compete for federal funding to act collaboratively. Competition can be good—motivating organizations to best meet the needs of newcomers. However, in the case of collaborative efforts, it can become tricky to develop a fair process for referring newcomers to a given organization, when individual organizations face pressure to meet quota requirements.  

Labour Market Barriers

Access to a personal and professional support system

In addition to difficulties accessing available resources, newcomers often have limited, if any, support systems in Canada.

Not having an established social or professional network makes it that much harder to navigate a new city and country. We rely on the connections we’ve made throughout our lives to find apartments, get financial help, and determine the best school for our children.

This is especially true when it comes to finding a job. Arrive (a venture by RBC with the mandate of helping newcomers) estimates that 65% to 85% of jobs are never publicly advertised. Instead, hiring managers rely on a pool of existing connections or colleagues to fill openings. This leaves newcomers—with fewer connections than those who have lived in Canada for years—out of the running for many positions for which they are qualified.

Newcomers themselves report this frustration: in a recent survey, nearly 50 percent of unemployed immigrants cited a lack of professional connections as the primary barrier to getting their foot in the door.  

Many settlement organizations are working to connect newcomers with employers. Although networking events do not necessarily translate to jobs, the experience can help individuals to build connections in their desired profession. For instance, the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS) hosts regular networking events to connect newcomers who have professional backgrounds with industry leaders and potential employers.  

Networking initiatives by settlement organizations can play a pivotal role in providing opportunities for newcomers to establish themselves in their chosen careers. Likewise, this means employers have an important role to play—in connecting with settlement organizations, participating in networking events for newcomers, and helping them to build their professional network locally.

Discrimination in the labour market

Newcomers often face discrimination in the labour market, starting from the moment they put their name in the hat for a job.

Research shows that job applicants with “foreign-sounding names” are 20 to 40 percent less likely to get a call back (the range varies with company size). Given the resumes in this experiment were otherwise identical, this suggests the difference is explained by personal biases of who would make a good “fit”.

Additionally, prospective employers discount experiences and education from outside of Canada. According to Statistics Canada, immigrants with education from outside of Canada are almost three times more likely to be overqualified in their current jobs than non-immigrants. Meanwhile, immigrants who obtained their education from a Canadian institution are much less likely to experience this issue.

New research shows that nearly 60% of recent immigrants (of those who arrived in Canada within the past five years) with work experience or post-secondary credentials from abroad encountered challenges in securing employment due to foreign work experience or credentials in the last two years.

Employer preference for Canadian education and experience may be deep-rooted in the idea that it represents stronger knowledge and competency for the job. But it also may reflect an assumption that an individual with Canadian experience will have a cultural understanding of the workplace—such as the style of communication and the approach to teamwork and conflict.

Unfortunately, discrimination often continues throughout one’s career, especially for those with a second-language accent. Based on prior research people tend to associate a second-language accent with lower levels of competence and trustworthiness. As a result, these individuals are often perceived to be a better fit for a lower-skilled job. In particular, a foreign accent can be a barrier to roles with direct interactions with clients or colleagues (of which most do) and managerial positions (important as one moves up the ranks).

On top of that, cultural differences and social norms can make it difficult to fully integrate into a workplace. Seemingly insignificant things like one’s tone of voice or how direct someone is in communication, for example, can contribute to subtle misunderstandings and an increased sense of isolation among newcomers.

In a survey of immigrants, nearly all participants reported that, despite working hard and being effective in their jobs, they felt a glass ceiling prevented them from promotion to higher positions.

There is likely no one perfect solution to fully remove bias from hiring and the workplace.  Progress will take time, thoughtfulness, and even experimentation (e.g., with best practices for reviewing resumes, the most effective collaborations with settlement services, etc.). But, as high levels of immigration continue, businesses that do this work will excel while others will be faced with a choice: to learn and replicate or be left behind.

Recognition of foreign education, experience, and credentials

Finally, for individuals who work in regulated professions (think: nurses, teachers, plumbers, and engineers), the door may be closed shut. All too often, individuals in regulated professions—many of whom have worked for years, or even decades—find that their career is unavailable to them in Canada, not because their skills are unneeded but because they are unable to practice in Canada without additional education and/or training.

Unfortunately, this affects a large number of immigrants. In a 2019 study, about half of economic immigrants reported that their profession was regulated. Yet many do not realize their skills will not be recognized even after they are here.

Especially confusing is that, for those in the Federal Skilled Worker program, what is known as an “education credential assessment” (ECA) is required as part of the application. This evaluation confirms an individual’s credentials are valid for the purpose of immigrant selection but not for the purpose of actually working. That is because the authority to practice a regulated profession ultimately rests with individual provinces and regulatory bodies.

Even simply going through the process to see if credentials are recognized can be expensive, time-consuming, and tiring. As a result, newcomers are commonly underemployed, working in jobs that do not capitalize on their skills—for months, years, or the entirety of their careers. Most Canadians can, unfortunately, identify with the experience of having met a foreign-trained doctor driving a taxi. 

Despite this being a widely cited issue for decades, and the federal government’s more recent nod to addressing it, it remains a difficult one to solve.

From the perspective of the regulatory body, its primary goal is to assure a standard of service for the profession it oversees. The concern with credentials earned abroad is that the program may not encompass the same curriculum as one in Canada. When you go in for a surgery, you want to be certain that an anesthesiologist trained abroad has the same knowledge of Canadian medications and measurement as an individual trained in Canada, for instance. The same concern, whether valid or not, can sometimes even be applied for credentials earned in another province.

An obvious solution would be for regulatory bodies to do more to determine 1) to what extent a given foreign credential is on par with those delivered provincially and 2) what is needed (short of a full “do-over” e.g., coursework or on-the-job training) if they do not align.

Though individual regulatory bodies have made some efforts to this end, two issues get in the way of doing so comprehensively. The first is that it takes time, money, and resources to make these evaluations, and could even open the regulatory body up to liability if a decision goes badly. Within a single country alone, there may be tens of hundreds of individual programs, each with its own curriculum (of varying quality). To conduct this process worldwide would be extremely costly and unreasonable for any one regulatory body.

The second is that there is little upside and a potential downside for the regulatory body and the professionals it represents. Limiting the number of individuals in a profession ensures that they are a scarce commodity with higher earnings power. Expanding the number of individuals who can practice a given profession risks doing the opposite.

Nevertheless, there are pockets of progress where collaborative efforts have begun to streamline and/or add sophistication to the process of recognizing outside qualifications.

For instance, in 2021 the Alberta government introduced the Labour Mobility Act to enable out-of-province workers in regulated professions to practice more quickly and easily. A key part of this act is that regulatory bodies are required by law to notify an applicant of a decision within 20 business days, ensuring that decisions are made quickly, and individuals new to the province are not left in waiting.

While this act does not apply to international migrants, it showcases Alberta’s capacity to standardize requirements across regulatory bodies and expedite the process of recognition—an approach that could ultimately be reapplied for foreign credentials.

Another example is the College of Registered Nurses of Alberta (CRNA) which collaborated with regulators to create a pilot program for the registration of internationally educated nurses. A notable part of this program is that the nursing skills of internationally educated applicants are measured against competencies required for three professions in Alberta—registered nurse, licensed practical nurse, and healthcare aide—to determine the role that matches best with an individual’s current competency faster.

The issue of recognizing foreign qualifications is incredibly complex due to the large number of regulatory bodies. While that makes a one-size-fits-all solution impossible, there are ways to tackle it.

One solution is to create standardized competency tests tailored to each regulated profession. These tests would assess whether foreign-trained individuals possess the required knowledge and skills and offer newcomers a chance to demonstrate their competency regardless of where they completed their training.

Another advantage of this approach is that it can identify the specific areas where additional training or education is needed (and where it is not), limiting the amount of time and money spent re-doing curriculum already mastered. For instance, a program abroad may teach the same skills but utilize a different software so the individual would only need additional training on the software itself. As well, competency-based tests recognize knowledge and skills acquired beyond formal education (e.g., on-the-job training). As such, this approach cuts back significantly on unnecessary training or education and expedites the process for newcomers to working in their chosen field.

According to recent data from Statistics Canada, the most common difficulties that recent immigrants (who arrived in Canada in the last five years), with some level of experience or credentials, face are: 1) not having enough Canadian job experience (22.7%), 2) having no connections in the job market (20.3%) and 3) lacking enough references from Canada (18.5%).

Conclusion

Immigration offers a variety of benefits to the Canadian economy. Nonetheless, numerous barriers stand in the way of newcomers realizing their full potential in Canada.

Especially disheartening is that many programs exist to support immigrants, but they either have long waitlists or are not well connected to newcomers. As well, it remains all too common for newcomers to end up in low-skilled or poorly-suited positions because of discrimination, underappreciated credentials, and experience, and/or a lack of access to the people and networks that matter.

There is much work to be done to develop the best practices and strategies to set immigrants up for success. Furthermore, this work must be ongoing. Canada must continuously assess and refine its existing approach based on the latest data and research to meet immigrants’ needs.

Given Canada’s targets for new immigrants are set to remain high in the coming years, minimizing these barriers is crucial to increase opportunities for newcomers in the labour market and beyond. Ultimately, immigrants’ success or failure is intertwined with that of Canada more broadly. In short, prosperity for newcomers means prosperity for Canada.

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