How Important Is ‘Canadian Work Experience’ When Starting a Career in Canada?

By Catherine Skrzypinski Apr 29, 2013

When a newcomer to Canada tackles the job market, the first question a potential employer may ask during an interview is: “Tell us about your Canadian work experience.”

Even though Canada prides itself on opening doors for immigrants, experts say those who obtain higher education and professional skills in their home country may face barriers seeking employment in the Great White North. Employers often tell skilled immigrants that their lack of “Canadian experience” is the reason they are not selected for a position.

Defining ‘Canadian Experience’

Asking about Canadian experience is a way of determining whether a potential immigrant employee can fit in with the company’s culture, said Izumi Sakamoto, Ph.D., an associate professor of social work at the University of Toronto.

Sakamoto has come to the conclusion that companies throughout Canada have different ways of interpreting what exactly Canadian experience is—and it’s a concept hiring managers have trouble articulating to applicants, she added.

Canadian experience, as defined by Sakamoto, is a combination of “hard” skills such as education, credentials and work experience within Canada, along with “soft” skills, or the ability to operate within Canadian workplace culture.

“At times, an employer may have a legitimate need for someone with Canadian experience because they are looking for someone who has specific knowledge and experience with local rules and regulations,” said Jessica Hume, communications manager for the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC). “At other times, it simply is referred to as understanding Canadian work culture.”

Human resource professionals should come up with criteria to define Canadian experience for potential employees, Sakamoto suggested.

Amelia Chan, CHRP, a Canadian immigration consultant based in Vancouver, wrote in an e-mail to SHRM Online that Canadian experience should be flexible, and it should include an understanding of Canadian sensibilities, such as an ability to communicate, a strong proficiency in either English or French, and the trade and professional qualifications recognized in an employee’s home province.

“For someone who hasn’t worked in the Canadian workplace before, it is important to consider their transferable skills—like teamwork, time management and problem-solving skills,” Chan added. “This is no different from candidates who are trying to transition from one industry/profession to another.”

Canada’s Foreign Credentials Referral Office dictates that, in order for foreign nationals to work in Canada, they need to have their credentials assessed to see whether they meet Canadian standards.

According to Sakamoto, employer expectations for Canadian experience puts internationally trained professionals in a double-bind. “They can’t get a job because they don’t have Canadian experience, and they can’t get Canadian experience because no one will give them a job,” she said in a research project, Beyond Canadian Experience.

Immigrant Workers Wanted

“Canada needs immigrants,” wrote Margaret Eaton, TRIEC executive director, in an op-ed on April 23, 2013, in the Financial Post. “Not just because they bring language, cultural know-how and international experience that allow us to compete on the global stage, but because, with an aging population and low birth rates, we need immigrants to fuel our economy.”

According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the country has been accepting a relatively consistent number of immigrants since 2008, averaging around 250,000 immigrants each year.

A high percentage of immigrants are choosing to settle in western provinces like Alberta because of the booming oil sands trade, explained Hume. She noted that the Greater Toronto Area still receives the largest number of immigrants because of its reputation as a diverse, multicultural metropolis.

Statistics Canada reported in 2012 that permanent resident immigrants with a university degree have a 7.9 percent unemployment rate, compared to similarly educated Canadian citizens, who experience a 3.1 percent unemployment rate.

However, a survey conducted by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) in October 2012 has found some hiring managers don’t want to take a chance on bringing immigrants into their company.

In a speech at the University of Toronto, Barbara Hall, OHRC’s chief commissioner, detailed how one employer responded to the survey that asked job seekers and employers to describe how Canadian experience requirements in the Ontario job market have affected them:

“Newcomers without Canadian experience are an absolute risk, as in many cases, a newcomer who doesn’t adapt well to the new workplace environment can make it awkward and uncomfortable for themselves, and co-workers at times in trying to help the newcomer settle in,” Hall said in January 2013. “And in many cases, if the newcomer becomes offended and thinks we are not doing enough to help them in their opinion, they claim racism or discrimination; something no employer wants to have to deal with. The risk and inconvenience is too high.”

As Chan wrote, “Unfortunately, most employers [in Canada] have a very narrow view of what is considered Canadian experience, taking it literally, at the expense of considering adaptability, trainability and initiative. Applicants have to take the initiative to familiarize themselves with their chosen industry and jobs they want to pursue. By researching, volunteering and building a network in their target industry, the applicant has a better chance of succeeding.”

Climbing the Canadian Career Ladder

Not all industries are strict about Canadian experience requirements. International professionals with careers in computer science, engineering, IT and telecommunications may be able to penetrate the Canadian labor market quicker.

Fortunately, thousands of newcomers can overcome the Canadian experience hurdle during their job search. Immigration experts advise international applicants pursuing a career in Canada to gain Canadian experience in the following ways:

*Bridge training programs.The programs help qualified, internationally trained individuals move into Ontario’s labor market. The programs are available to applicants in a number of professions, including business, health care, human resources, law, nursing and social work, among others.

*Mentoring partnerships.Sponsored by TRIEC, the Mentoring Partnerships program brings together skilled immigrants and established Canadian professionals to build mentoring relationships. More than 50 organizations throughout Ontario have offered this program to their staff in the past decade as an opportunity to enhance their leadership competencies, as well as to develop their cross-cultural skills.

Mentoring partnerships have helped shape skilled immigrants’ careers.

A study conducted by global consultancy firm Accenture and ALLIES Canada in April 2013 found that, within 12 months of completing a mentoring program, unemployment among mentees dropped from 73 percent to 19 percent.

*Paid internships. While those starting out in Canada are encouraged to volunteer to kick start their career, experts recommend mid-level professionals seek out paid internship opportunities.

The Career Bridge program allows internationally qualified professionals to apply for paid internships lasting from four to 12 months at many Canadian private, public or nonprofit firms.

*Professional immigrant networks. Immigrants have the opportunity to network within their own diaspora, including the Latin American MBA Alumni Network and the Chinese Professionals Association of Canada.

“People love Canada, and people are still willing to immigrate here for a better life,” Janet Bomza, founder and managing lawyer of the Bomza Law Group - Immigration Lawyers in Toronto concluded. “The country has a lot to offer, and foreign nationals recognize that.”

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

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