Global Voices: Underemployed immigrants a waste of potential

January 28, 2018

By Marc and Craig Kieburger, Timescolonist |

Talha Mohammad Malik is one of the lucky ones. He came to Canada seeking a better future for his daughter. He brought with him a strong education and promising job experience, one of the more than 170,000 skilled immigrants Canada welcomed in 2016.

But unlike the vast majority of them, he has managed to find fulfilling work in his field.

Originally from Pakistan, Malik is exactly the kind of immigrant Canada should attract: fluent in English, he has a degree in computer science and a background in IT in the financial sector.

With Toronto sitting on Amazon’s shortlist for its new HQ, Canada must focus on maximizing our talent pool — especially among our newest citizens.

There’s a long-running Toronto joke that the best place to have a heart attack is in the back of a taxi because — chances are — the driver is a doctor.

In reality, there aren’t many doctors driving cabs, but one fifth of newcomers who end up behind the wheel have bachelor’s or master’s degrees. This illustrates the wider problem: 24 per cent of skilled immigrants who come here can’t work in their field or are underemployed.

“We have these people coming to Canada because they are doctors and lawyers,” says Shabnum Budhwani, senior manager with the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council of Canada.

“But there are major barriers once they’re here.”

The waste of potential costs our economy as much as $17 billion a year and causes stress and depression for immigrants.

“On one side of the border, you’re a doctor. And on the other, you’re nothing,” Budhwani says.

The problem of aligning certifications for regulated professions, such as doctors and lawyers, has been widely discussed and debated. But it’s not the only challenge that keeps so many highly trained professionals like Malik from having relevant and meaningful careers.

The challenges for new Canadians that so often get overlooked are the soft skills, such as networking and job-hunting know-how. As the old saying goes: It’s not what you know, but who you know. And the formula for a job-winning resumé in Pakistan won’t necessarily work in Canada.

After leaving one of the largest banks in Pakistan, Malik assumed he’d find similar work here. But he didn’t have a network to rely on. More than 80 per cent of jobs are filled with informal connections, so Malik turned to ACCES Employment, an organization that helps internationally trained newcomers find work.

He learned to tailor his resumé for Canadian employers. And he received tips on which areas in the Canadian financial services market are growing. Most importantly, he plugged into a promising network of job contacts. Within months, Malik landed a job with RBC.

Back in Pakistan, he was a business analyst; now, he works with retail and small-business clients.

He’s making use of his skills, and learning new ones. “It’s a completely different role,” he says. “Still, it’s within the financial sector and it’s a platform to reposition myself.”

Thanks to a program that bridged the gap between immigration and employment, Malik has meaningful employment, contributing much more to our country than he would behind the wheel of a cab.

And he is able to help his daughter achieve the better life he envisioned for her.

Every skilled new Canadian deserves the same opportunity.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day. For more dispatches from WE, check out WE Stories.

Read more