New to Canada, struggling to find work

October 19, 2017

By Globe and Mail |

Armed with PhDs and a wealth of experience, Shereen Shokry and Humayun Kabir immigrated to Canada with hopes of picking up where they left off in their careers.

They soon faced a common challenge for newcomers to Canada: Getting jobs in the fields they are highly qualified for in other countries.

Today, Dr. Shokry, 43, and Dr. Kabir, 40, are back working in the education system, thanks to a special George Brown College bridging program for internationally trained professionals that prepares them to teach in Canadian colleges.

The one-year certificate program – which also offers students opportunities to network with prospective employers – is just one example of how Canadian colleges are helping immigrants gain solid footing in their new country.

“When I came here [to Canada], entering school again was something very strange for me – to start from the beginning,” says Dr. Shokry. Despite her medical and teaching qualifications, initially she could find work only at a call centre after arriving in Canada with her husband, an endodonist also aiming to work in Canada, and their two children in 2015.

Back home in Egypt, and also in Saudi Arabia, she was a professor of dentistry and an oral maxillofacial radiologist – who has expertise in using imaging techniques to diagnose diseases of the head and mouth.

After graduation, she landed a job teaching biology part-time at George Brown. She also hopes to write her first exam in the coming months to qualify to continue practising her dentistry specialty.

Dr. Kabir, originally from Bangladesh, has a PhD in cultural anthropology, taught in his home country and Japan, and worked for international organizations. After settling in Toronto with his wife, who also has a PhD in cultural anthropology, and their then four-year-old daughter, in May of 2016, he ended up driving for Uber for several months as a source of income.

“In the initial few months here in Canada, I kept sending résumés but got few responses,” he said.

After taking a workshop for new immigrants that led to job offers in warehouses and restaurants, his research connected him with George Brown. Near the end of his first semester, he landed a position at Humber College teaching sociology. Recently, he added another job: as a George Brown instructor in world civilizations.

It is no coincidence that Canadian colleges go to great lengths to welcome and prepare immigrant students for school and work.

Immigration is key in helping soften the effects on the labour force of the aging population, an important element of long-term economic growth, according to the Conference Board of Canada’s report, A long-term view of Canada’s demographics, released in October, 2016.

Bridging, pre-arrival, and other programs and services are particularly important for immigrant students, who, compared with international students (those in the country on study permits but who also may apply to immigrate to Canada), tend to be older, have more extensive education and work backgrounds, and are also permanent residents, notes Alex Irwin, director of George Brown’s School of Immigrant and Transitional Education (SITE).

Along with the one-year college teachers training program that Ms. Shokry and Mr. Kabir have completed, SITE offers bridging programs in nursing and construction management.

Among other Canadian colleges with prominent immigrant programs and services is Red River College, which has campuses in Winnipeg and other areas of Manitoba, and this year has nearly 1,360 immigrant students who are permanent residents.

“Our goal is to support immigrants to Manitoba with a holistic approach throughout their entire student life cycle, and we have a large suite of programs and services across different departments and areas to work toward this goal,” Nora Sobel, manager of diversity and intercultural services at Red River, said in an e-mail interview.

Red River recruits students from other countries to aid in boosting Manitoba’s skilled labour shortages, the school’s website says. In the spring, for instance, the college launched a pathway program to construction skills, starting with 20 students from countries such as Syria, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Also on campus, Red River’s Diversity and Intercultural Services department helps organize the annual welcome party for immigrant and international students, and offers services, including financial aid information sessions.

Many programs don’t just delve into the fine points of the jobs themselves; they also give immigrant students insight into the “cultural norms and social cues in the workplace,” notes Mr. Irwin.

He gives this example: “The Canadian workplace can be seen as more casual, but there are a lot of social clues we take for granted that have to be learned if you’re new to the country, like what to call your boss. Calling someone ‘sir’ may not be appropriate in Canada.”

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