Left to right (despite what the nameplates appear to say): Louise Adongo, Service Nova Scotia policy advisor; Diana Chiriac, Emera financial analyst; Magda Lynch, ISANS work coordinator

“We’re not talking about breaking the glass ceiling; we’re talking about knocking down concrete walls.” 
— Remi Suarez, Health Canada Human Resources manager,Halifax

It was a case of statistics confirming what many suspected. The last federal census reported that among educated immigrant women with a bachelor’s degree or higher, six out of 10 were working in jobs below their qualifications. Sadly, researchers continue to identify barriers for educated women and ongoing challenges for businesses who hire newcomers with international experience.

The comment by Suarez — who was born in the Philippines — was made at a public session in early March. The Immigrant Settlement Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS) and the Status of Women published the findings of a two-year project titled “Moving Up Underemployed Professional Immigrant Women.”

Thirty-seven employers from HRM and 30 women — currently working in fields that include healthcare, education, engineering, IT, and government — were interviewed about their experiences.

“For me, it was a surprise I couldn’t find work in my field here,” Magda Lynch told the group. “I speak English, I have an M.A. in Psychology, and I trained as an occupational therapist in the United Kingdom. I worked 10 years for the National Health Service, one of the largest medical organizations in the world, where one-third of the staff is not born in the U.K.”

The well-known barrier around recognizing international credentials — think of doctors driving taxicabs and registered nurses emptying bedpans — was excluded from this 2016 study. Yes, self-governing professions such as medicine and engineering have improved procedures to shorten the time it takes to evaluate education or experience from outside Canada. A foreign-trained family doctor can now be licensed in two to three years instead of six. But change isn’t moving fast enough for many ambitious women.

Magda Lynch has immigrated twice in her life, first from Poland at age 25 to the U.K. Both she and her husband, who left Britain to work at the Halifax Shipyard, had temporary work permits when they came to Nova Scotia five years ago.

Although Lynch’s training and experience were quickly validated by the Nova Scotia College of Occupational Therapy, the rules forbade her from writing the licensing exam until she became a permanent resident of Canada. She waited 18 months, by which time Magda says “I had no income, no job, and my self-confidence was shaken because I feared I would lose my credentials.”

She passed the licensing exam but still couldn’t land a single job interview for an occupational therapist. “I learned that I must have Canadian work experience before I could get in the door.”

This was barrier #2 noted by every immigrant woman in the Project. It’s why Rosalie, an experienced teacher from Kenya, is currently working at a call centre while she takes courses during a qualifying year at Mount Saint Vincent University. The call center job will allow her to tick the “Canadian experience” box on her future application to a  school board.

For Magda Lynch, a short-term job she had taken in healthcare administration in the U.K. turned out to be the springboard to land her first “Canadian” job — an unpaid internship with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation arranged through ISANS. “Getting Canadian experience — Nova Scotia experience — that was the deal-breaker for me,” recalls Lynch.

From that first job she “temped” at various places before finally landing a contract with the Workers Compensation Board to work as an occupational therapist rehabilitating injured workers. The job didn’t make use of her post-surgical or work with dementia patients experience but she proved she could adapt and master new skills. Today, Lynch is the coordinator of Bridge to Work, an ISANS program that helps newcomers find entry level jobs. Here are her top three recommendations:

1. Change the rules to allow professionals to write qualifying, licensing exams while they wait to become permanent residents.

2. Instead of focusing only on whether a candidate has Canadian work experience, recognize and reward  international experience after verifying the candidate’s education and work history.

3. Consider using a “preceptorship” model similar to the U.K.’s, where health professionals are provided an opportunity to work as an assistant for one year under direct supervision of qualified staff to prove their competency. It’s a stressful “pass/fail” system where candidates agree to accept minimum wage in return for the chance to prove themselves in a clinical setting.

Joyce Mal is the manager of nursing services for the Northwood Group. Many of the nursing homes hire internationally-trained RNs (registered nurses) to fill lower-skilled and lower-paid positions as Continuing Care Assistants while the nurses’ credentials and English proficiency is being reviewed by the College of Nurses. Mal says the process to get certified to work as an RN  is both “long and expensive”  and many of the immigrants who work at Northwood send money home regularly.

To help advance their careers, Northwood has hired a coordinator to provide onsite coaching to foreign-trained nurses working as Continuing Care Assistants. Mal spoke frankly about some cross-cultural issues Northwood has encountered when it comes to palliative care and the reluctance of some internationally-trained nurses to administer “comfort medication” to dying patients.

“Some just can’t do it,” Mal said. Northwood has suggested changes be made in the training course for internationally-trained nurses to deal with this area.

Increasing cultural diversity among staff has also led to friction with Canadian-born employees and elderly patients, Mal said. There is a workplace diversity committee and the complex holds monthly “international” suppers featuring food and costumes from different lands. But it’s not enough. Northwood is also working with ISANS to develop a diversity strategy that will involve mandatory training for staff and residents to encourage respect and understanding.

Women who participated in the Moving Up project say learning English well enough to understand the jokes and be considered for a promotion is another barrier they must overcome if they hope to get a job that matches their ability.

“It was like a cold shower,” recalls Diana Chiriac, about the torrent of English that washed over as she arrived in Toronto as a 25-year old from Romania. She had degrees in both law and financial accounting from Bucharest but with no English and zero Canadian experience, she soon found out the only work she could get was as a payroll clerk for a small business run by a Romanian family.

Eight years later, she followed her husband to Nova Scotia where he took a job at Michelin Tire. Chiriac says her neighbours were warm and welcoming and encouraged her to apply for work at Emera. She started there as a cost analyst for the Brunswick Pipeline (natural gas) and credits her colleagues and supervisors for telling her about opportunities that led to her promotion as part of Emera’s internal audit team.

Diana told the largely female audience that Canadians are often unaware how opaque and stressful the workplace can be for newcomers struggling to learn a second language. “I cried a lot,” she said wryly, recalling early days when she was asked to call FedEx (“What is FedEx??”) or asked to bring a clipboard to a meeting (“What is a clipboard?”) and showed up with a box of paper clips. Turns out demystifying the little things can often make a big difference to employees trying hard to adapt to a new workplace in a new country.

Another recommendation from the Project is for employers to offer immigrant employees a thorough orientation that explains procedures and expectations, as well as any professional development, networking or volunteer opportunities that could lead to advancement in the future. While Canadian employees usually have a good idea about what’s required to climb the corporate ladder, the same isn’t always true for newcomers who have had to reboot and overcome adversity to get a foot on the bottom rung.

They often make terrific employees, according to Kevin Sullivan, a business manager at Nova Scotia Power, who says half the people he’s hired over the years are newcomers to Canada. Sullivan says the fact his family fled Hungary as refugees predisposes him to give others a chance to show what they can do.

A smiling white woman with short silver hair wearing dark rimmed glasses and a bright blue blazer.

Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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3 Comments

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  1. Some context for this article would be useful. How do the experiences of immigrant women compare to immigrant men, or people from other provinces?

    I’m a come-from-away who struggled to find good work here for years, and I now work remotely for an Ontario company. How important is Nova Scotia experience? At one interview, I was asked to identify the counties of Nova Scotia on a map. One expects odd questions in interviews, but they are usually intended to reveal how you think, not whether or not you know which side of the Cabot Trail is Victoria County, and which side is Inverness County.

    1. I don’t know how important NS experience is to employers here, but ISANS/Dalhousie research shows that while immigrants to Nova Scotia used to have worse employment prospects than Canadian immigrants on average, that gap has narrowed, and Nova Scotia now reports (slightly) better-than-average employment rates for immigrants than the national average.

      And on average, recent cohorts of immigrants to Nova Scotia earn more than the national average too: http://www.isans.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/Who-are-Recent-Immigrants-and-What-are-their-Economic-Activities.pdf

      Some research a few years ago by a SMU professor was less thorough but also showed positive numbers: http://www.isans.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/FactSheet_ImmigrantsNS.pdf

      1. Based on personal experience, women professionals, even those who speak English, fluently, have a very difficult time finding work in Nova Scotia. Currently, the self-identification questionnaires required for a number of government positions or positions for institutions which receive government monies, do not ask people to self identify whether they are immigrants. The lack of data collection on this variable is inadvertently encourages ongoing discrimination. These questions remind employers that discrimination based on national origin ( immigration status) is unacceptable and also clue them in to the reason that they may not recognize the credentials of the applicant.

        Apart from gender, if an immigrant is older (and highly experienced), the challenges of finding employment as a professional in Nova Scotia are even more daunting. As an aside, age is the other “prohibited discriminatory category” which is not included on the voluntary self-identification questionnaires.

        So the question is can Nova Scotia’s economy and society really afford to ignore the wealth of experience and perspective from women immigrants who are professionals? Also, is Nova Scotia prepared to support all of its underemployed or unemployed women immigrants as they age because they do not earn enough to contribute to their support when they retire?

        Right now 1/3 of the women in Canada who are over the age of 65 live below the poverty line and have a life expectancy of 82. Unless something is done, immigrant women may well increase the percentage of women living in poverty for the last third of their lives. Seems to me the better solution is for employers to avail themselves of the professional skills of immigrant women ( and older folks too) to create a robust Nova Scotia economy.