Employers say hiring foreign-trained workers has challenges
By Norma Greenaway, Postmedia News
OTTAWA — About half of Canadian employers say their appetite for hiring foreign-trained workers is reduced because of difficulties assessing their abilities, according to an internal survey commissioned by the federal government.
Employers' qualms about hiring workers trained abroad revolved around the challenges of evaluating their education credentials, their language skills and their work experience, the survey said.
It also said interest in hiring foreign workers was lowest among small business owners, who make up the bulk of Canada's employers, and highest among larger companies.
The survey, conducted by Ekos Research Associates in March for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, involved telephone interviews with 519 small, medium and large companies and 15 business organizations.
Speeding recognition of foreign credentials of newcomers has been a major preoccupation for the Conservatives and the in-depth survey suggests they are carefully tracking the mood of business around the subject.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney acknowledged the uphill nature of getting employers to hire foreign-trained workers Tuesday at an event in Ottawa where he announced the expansion of a program that allows foreigners to work as interns to gain temporary work experience.
The program provided 29 internships within the immigration and human resources departments last year. The number will climb to more than 60 this year, Kenney said, because six more departments and agencies have signed on.
Kenney called the initiative a modest beginning that, he hopes, will send a message to all levels of government and the private sector "to find concrete ways to open doors of opportunity."
The single biggest hurdle immigrants face in getting a good job in their field of expertise is a lack of Canadian work experience, he told reporters.
New Democrat Olivia Chow welcomed expansion of the federal internship program, something the Commons immigration committee had recommended.
But Chow, the party's immigration critic, said it falls far short of what is needed to address the problem of too many highly-educated immigrants ending up jobless or underemployed.
"We need leadership here," she said, dismissing the hiring of 60 interns as "barely a step" forward.
She urged Kenney to adopt the committee's recommendations to provide financial incentives or tax breaks to encourage small and medium-sized businesses to hire workers trained abroad and to ensure more prospective immigrants start the process of getting their credentials as doctors, pharmacists and other specialties recognized before they come to Canada.
Chow said only 10 per cent of immigrants are currently taking advantage of the existing pre-assessment opportunity to start the process before they arrive here.
Liberal MP Justin Trudeau urged the government to devote more money to language programs for immigrants as part of a broader effort to stop the slide in their economic opportunities that has happened over the last decade or so. He said providing financial incentives to encourage small businesses to hire foreign-trained workers would "absolutely" be one of the best ways to assist immigrants, who, Trudeau says, are vital to Canada's future economic health.
"Unless we are serious about addressing the big issues around immigration," he said, "then we're going to be playing catch up when the rest of the world starts fighting over the best and the brightest, as they are going to, because everywhere in the western world birthrates are down."
The internal survey also made clear the government has a major job ahead to convince employers to pay attention to opportunities for hiring foreign-trained workers.
It said more than nine of 10 employers surveyed said they had never heard of the Foreign Credential Referral Office, a vehicle the Harper government created three years ago to help newcomers get their credentials recognized more quickly so they can try to match their skills to jobs.
This week, a fresh spotlight was cast on the struggle immigrants have in finding good jobs with the release of a report that said recent immigrants with a university education had an unemployment rate last year that was four times higher than non-immigrants with the same education level.
The report, prepared by the Community Foundations of Canada, says recent immigrants have been hardest hit by the recession.
The jobless rate for recent immigrants with university education is "disturbing," Kenney said, and illustrates why the government is pushing to speed recognition of foreign credentials and putting more resources into helping newcomers improve their language proficiency.