Calgarians are changing.
Not so long ago, Calgary was known as a city of Caucasians wearing cowboy hats and shit-kickers. Slowly, gradually, it is developing into a multicultural metropolis.
But for the thousands of immigrants who increasingly call Calgary home, moving to Canada and planting roots is hard work. The hard work starts with the application process to get permission to move to Canada, which can take years; the trials and tribulations continue when immigrants arrive on Canadian soil. Doctors, engineers and other professionals often have an incredibly difficult time obtaining certificates, training and experience recognized by Canadian companies and government. Along with the stresses of adapting to a foreign environment, many immigrants are forced to take minimum-wage jobs, often part-time, to make ends meet. And too often immigrants get frustrated with jumping through bureaucratic hoops and obstacles; of the many immigrants who apply to come to Canada, few truly comprehend the arduous journey ahead.
For Pramod Kumar, it has taken seven years, two cities, hundreds of job applications and plenty of personal struggles to find success in his adoptive city of Calgary.
Born in central India, Kumar studied agriculture and received a master’s degree in plant breeding and genetics. For two years, he worked at the Indian Agriculture Research Institute. Given the opportunity to continue his education in his chosen field, Kumar came to Canada to attend the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
When he left school, he quickly realized that landing an agricultural job wasn’t going to be easy.
“After graduating I was trying to get a good job. I started working for a small consulting firm and then because of a shortage of work I was laid off,” he says. “Then I kept applying for several jobs, but because I didn’t have farm experience here in Canada I couldn’t get a job in my field.”
Two years ago Kumar moved to Calgary, hoping that a bigger city and a more developed business community would help his employment situation.
“I have applied for 300 jobs and got maybe two interview calls,” he says.
Refusing to give up on agriculture, Kumar started his own business, AgriClaim Canada Inc. He enrolled in a self-employment program through Meyers Norris Penny, which provides a wide range of business advisory services, and received startup funding from the Canadian Youth Business Foundation.
“My main business is farm consulting but I also specialize in plant breeding, so I thought of offering some unique services. One of them is intellectual property protection, which is plant breeders’ rights,” says Kumar.
With a handful of clients and a lot of potential, Kumar’s company is slowly growing; he has hired a full-time employee and recently received a grant from the federal government to further develop a portal that allows farmers, plant breeders and consultants to easily communicate and exchange information.
Kumar’s wife, Sonika, moved from India to Canada in 2005, and now, with a daughter, Anya, in kindergarten and a newborn baby girl, Prisha, the future looks brighter for the couple.
“Calgary is a very business-friendly city. I found it much better than Saskatoon because it is a larger business community. There are all kinds of company headquarters here which may help in the future,” he says. “Some of the people have started recognizing my services or my name at least.”
PLENTY HELP FOR IMMIGRANTS
According to Statistics Canada, in 1997 about 4,000 immigrants moved to Calgary. In 2007 that number had jumped to more than 14,000, and last year more than 18,000 immigrants came to Calgary. Fariborz Birjandian, executive director of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, points out that Calgary receives almost twice as many immigrants as Edmonton, and there are more temporary workers per capita in Calgary than any other city in Canada. “Calgary has become a city of choice,” he says.
A 2009 report by Calgary Economic Development called The Changing Profile of Calgary’s Workforce says that immigrants represent 25.3 per cent of Calgary’s labour force. “This large segment grew by 41.9 per cent from 2001 to 2006,” the report states. “The group [was] comprised of 178,700 workers in 2006, an increase of over 52,800 workers from 2001.”
There are two main reasons for immigrants to move to Calgary, says Mae Chun, an employment bridging officer with Immigrant Services Calgary (ISC). “One is if they have friends and family here — if they have that, it is usually the deciding factor,” she says. “In absence of that, it will be for economic reasons because a lot of immigrants, in my opinion… whether they come from South America, China or Indonesia, they come here with a lot of oil and gas experience, which makes Calgary the logical place for them to begin.”
Born and raised in India, Vijay Panchmatia moved to Calgary in August 2009, mainly to land a job. With a background in transportation and freight, he had worked in Dubai in the freight industry, shipping goods and equipment for many oil conglomerates.
Realizing similarities between Calgary and Dubai, Panchmatia decided to move here after visiting a few Canadian cities.
After applying for 46 jobs, which produced only two phone interviews, Panchmatia realized he needed help. He was applying for positions he felt he was far more than qualified for, yet he was alarmed that he wasn’t getting work. So, he tapped into services and programs offered by the various governments.
“It’s been very interesting, but the biggest thing I like to say is that the government support for immigrants is massive, it is so huge. There are so many different agencies for support,” he says. “I know of more than 32 agencies in this city alone.”
One simple initiative is liveinecalgary.com, a Calgary Economic Development website that provides basic information for immigrants starting out in Calgary. Another program, Momentum, teaches new Calgarians to use computers, and helps them with financing (borrowing and repaying business loans) and to secure meaningful employment. Other groups help with coping skills, interview skills and pair new immigrants with mentors in their chosen business fields.
Tapping into an ISC program, Panchmatia was partnered with a mentor who regularly coached him and advised him which companies he should send job applications to.
He ended up applying for a position as a shift manager with FedEx — a job he thought he was overqualifed for, but his mentor told him to apply anyway. The advice paid off, as Panchmatia ended up getting a higher, better-paid position — services manager — that was not publicly advertised, but FedEx officials recognized his skills and experience. Now that Panchmatia has settled into a job, he plans to bring his wife from India to Calgary.
NOT ALL MILK AND HONEY
The hardships and challenges faced by so many immigrants coming to Calgary start long before they leave their birth countries.
It often takes years for a foreigner to go through the tedious bureaucratic process to get the proper papers to migrate to Canada. The recent recession and rise in unemployment hasn’t helped much.
“The downturn came very quickly,” says Chun. “It was a sharp drop. It took a lot of people by surprise.”
For many recent immigrants, it has been a shock to arrive in Calgary and discover the economy isn’t as robust as they were originally led to believe.
“The first group that is impacted are the most recent arrivals,” says Birjandian, adding many come with education and job experience, but they end up working for minimum wage in the retail, food and hospitality industries.
One problem that causes major confusion and frustration is misinformation about employment opportunities. Prior to leaving their birth counties, many immigrants are told their job experience and certification will be recognized in Canada.
“When you come here, all your past education and experience is discounted,” says Panchmatia, who learned the hard way. “And for that you’re not prepared. This is where the support system in Canada is trying to bridge that gap. If this information is freely available to the people [immigrants], they can prepare for it.”
This has been a sticking point for years — something Alberta government officials say they are trying to fix.
“We want immigration composed of immigrants who are linked to the workforce,” says Alberta Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk.
The government recognizes that immigration is necessary for the province, but Alberta wants to attract skilled, experienced workers, says Lukaszuk. Government officials, he says, are working on making it easier for immigrants to have their certifications recognized, particularly in the medical, dental and engineering professions.
“Usually they talk in very general terms,” Chun says of governments, “but in practise they are only fast-tracking certain professions and for the majority, it’s still the same long process. As far as I am concerned, it is not changing fast enough.”
Lukaszuk agrees with Chun. “A great deal of headway has been made, but we have a long way to go,” he says.
So, for now, some of the best and brightest immigrants will continue to hit stumbling blocks in getting their foreign experience and education recognized.
“You need to be above-average in your field of industry,” says Panchmatia. “Every immigrant is above-average in their field in their country or else they do not qualify. The people that come here are the crème de la crème.”
It often takes years for newly landed immigrants to develop the Canadian skills and experience they need to secure jobs in their chosen fields. Until that point, many have to take jobs — any jobs — to survive and pay the bills.
The key to success, says Kumar, is to have an open mind.
“My advice is to make use of all the resources because there are resources available everywhere,” he says. “If you need specific training, there is training available. Focus on what you want to do and get appropriate training and maybe some work experience.”