Immigrants face challenges in finding jobs that are not of their own making

The challenges immigrants face in finding jobs have to do with not just the characteristics and skills they bring to the labour market, but also the state of our economy and the barriers put in their way. More and more tinkering with the selection rules used to admit immigrants will not on its own address these challenges.

In a post on my blog I called for lower rates of immigration during business cycle downturns, and a reader commented by saying:

I arrived in Canada in July 2011 with my family and was called for exactly one job interview a couple of weeks ago. To say I am scarred is putting it mildly. I left a very successful career with the knowledge that it will be difficult to get a similar position but I never anticipated that I would end up feeling invisible and a non-entity with absolutely nothing to offer. Since coming here I have been shelling out money for everything, university fees for my kids and so on. Other than contributing to the Canadian economy through our expenses, I feel immigrants are not considered to be of any particular value.

It struck me how odd and incomplete the public policy response by Canadian opinion makers and governments is to this kind of concern.

On February 8th 2012, The Globe and Mail published an editorial on the challenges that immigrants face: it was called “Canada’s immigration selection model should focus on long-term labour market needs“.

The editorial writers cited a recently published study by one of the big banks to call for the government to once again change the selection rules so that policy give more weight to applicants who can speak English or French.

This approach to public policy—the suggestion that the problem lies with the characteristics of immigrants—cannot be the whole story. To a labour economist this sounds like a labour supply explanation, and misses the opportunity to examine the structures and characteristics of the system in which immigrants are placed: that is, to also recognize the role of labour demand.

By not adjusting the number of immigrants the country lets in with a business cycle downturn immigration policy is forcing those who arrive here to paddle upstream. This needs to be a concern not just in the short-term, but also with respect to long-term labour market outcomes. Jobless spells will be longer than they need be, motivation will be challenged, and immigrants will be forced to take jobs in occupations that will imply lower wages over the long-term than they are qualified for.

But there is more to the problem than just the state of the business cycle, a case made by Philip Oreopoulos, a labour economist at the University of Toronto, in a paper called “Why do skilled immigrants struggle in the labour market?”

Oreopoulos applied to jobs in the Toronto area by sending out fictitious c.v.’s—6,000 of them— during a period in which the labour market was booming. The important point of his research is that the c.v.’s were cleverly designed and differed in particular ways. In effect he was conducing an experiment, or what he calls a “Field Experiment”.

The “control” case was a particular c.v. describing a Canadian born individual, with Canadian education, with Canadian job experience, and crucially a “Canadian” sounding name. This was sent to job vacancies he found on-line, and then a series of similar c.v.’s were sent to the same vacancies. These differed slightly: some only in that the name was changed to be a common Chinese, Indian, or Pakistani name; others in addition to having different names also listed work experience that was obtained abroad; and finally others also differed in that education credentials were obtained abroad.

Then he counted the number of call-backs for interviews received by the different types of c.v.’s.

Here is how he states his results:

The study produced four main findings: 1) Interview request rates for English-named applicants with Canadian education and experience were more than three times higher compared to resumes with Chinese, Indian, or Pakistani names with foreign education and experience (5 percent versus 16 percent), but were no different compared to foreign applicants from Britain. 2) Employers valued experience acquired in Canada much more than if acquired in a foreign country. Changing foreign resumes to include only experience from Canada raised callback rates to 11 percent. 3) Among resumes listing 4 to 6 years of Canadian experience, whether an applicant’s degree was from Canada or not, or whether the applicant obtained additional Canadian education or not had no impact on the chances for an interview request. 4) Canadian applicants that differed only by name had substantially different callback rates: Those with English-sounding names received interview requests 40 percent more often than applicants with Chinese, Indian, or Pakistani names (16 percent versus 11 percent).

The conclusion he draws is that overall “the results suggest considerable employer discrimination against applicants with ethnic names or with experience from foreign firms.”

All of this would suggest that public policy toward immigration needs not to just address supply-side concerns, and certainly the most basic way of doing that is to temporarily reduce the number of immigrants coming into the country during a major recession, but also demand-side considerations that reflect the structures and barriers in the Canadian labour market—something that would be of benefit to us all, immigrant or not.


[ The study by Philip Oreopoulos referred to in this post is published in the November 2011 issue of the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy under the title “Why Do Skilled Immigrants Struggle in the Labor Market? A Field Experiment with Thirteen Thousand Resumes.” ]


32 thoughts on “Immigrants face challenges in finding jobs that are not of their own making

  1. Some thoughts about this article:
    1) It would have been interesting to know the background and years of experience of this reader who came in 2011.
    2) Adjusting immigrant acceptance to economic cycles has positives and negatives especially when one knows that certain “biases” will always be there regardless of the number of immigrants accepted.
    3) What would have been a more compelling reason and which was not mentioned in the article is the ubiquitous backclash of ordinary citizens accusing immigrants for taking jobs from “Canadians” during an economic downturn. Similar dynamics exist in the US.
    4) The issue of names (Canadian for that matter) has been around as far back as one can remember. The same applies to relevant Canadian experience. So that’s realy nothing new.
    5) With regard to the study, it’s difficult to criticise not knowing basic parameters that contributed to the research. EG Sample size, number ultimately employed, type of jobs, types of employers etc.

    Finally, my believe is that employers will recruit who they want and when they are critically in need of employees. There are also circumstances where those recruited have their salaries subsidized by government through occassional incentives. A better approach in my view is to retrospectively review the distribution of new immgrant employment both here and in the US.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I am wondering what exactly you mean in your last sentence when you state “to retrospectively review the distribution of new immigrant employment …” .

      As for the Oreopoulos study I hope you have the chance to give it a read. You certainly raising reasonable concerns, and my sense is that you will find it interesting. The version I posted is restricted to an analysis of the Toronto labour market, but my understanding is that there is a more recent version that is broader in scope.

  2. In the canadian context,it would have been interesting to know if French-sounding names would habe scored better or worse than f”oreign” names

    1. Well my surname is french I had to leave my birth city 7 since age 25, and I’m in Ottawa out of work over 3 yrs because minorities take the jobs, they will tell me I must speak french and hire some girl from India who doesn’t . ..and I sent over 2000 resumes here…

  3. Along the same lines as Jacques suggested …

    * Canadian born individual, with Canadian education, with Canadian job experience, “ethnic” name

    * Canadian born individual, with Canadian and foreign (US, UK, France) education, with Canadian and foreign job experience,

    * Canadian born individual, with Canadian and US (graduate) education, with little Canadian but mostly or even exclusively US/other foreign job experience,

  4. The article makes the assumption that foreign experience is equivalent to local experience, which is not always the case. Another issue is language skills. Too many Canadian immigrants live in their communities and do not posses language and communication skills suitable for their professional experience levels.

    These mean that many immigrants have to start off at more junior positions than they would like. Unfortunately this can create resentment and cause grief. But it is no different for a “Canadian” trying a mid life career change. My 10 years of engineering experience would count for nothing if I decided to become a teacher.

  5. Jacques, Gary and Joe make interesting but disparate points.

    Many Canadians (except those in the Employment and Immigration departments in Ottawa) would be interested if StatsCan tracked what Jacques and Gary suggest. Even if we knew those numbers, I fear it would likely not change the fact that Canada is a very closed society professionally. Everyone who is highly educated and successful outside the country is looked upon with suspicion if they are immigrating from a much more productive country than Canada, such as from the US, or decide to return home to live in Canada after years away as an expat. As an executive recruiter from one of Canada’s major agencies wrote on my blog article about a similar issue, even young Canadians who leave the country for their Masters or other graduate degree are discriminated against: “Canadian post grads experience road blocks by potential employers who question motivations around choosing American or International degrees over Canadian. When short listing, Canadian graduates tend to get preference.”

    And Joe is correct when he writes that foreign experience is not always equivalent to that of Canadians. In fact, it is often better. Many professionals coming from OECD countries will have worked in societies with much higher productivity that that in Canada, with a much more competitive and innovation mindset. So, these people crossing into Canada will need to learn how to “work harder but not smarter” and with less resources than what they are familiar with to fit in. (See “Canadians Work Harder But Not Smarter” – Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity

    Prior to the Great Contraction, Canadian productivity was around 70% of the US rate. During and after the recession, Canada’s productivity did increase, but the US increase outpaced Canada by more than 200% during that same time frame. So, mathematically, Canada is further behind than prior to the recession.

    There are other countries with similar poor regard for immigrants and returning citizens. But, that is not what we should aspire to. Educated, successful and risk-taking immigrants will be Canada’s best bet for a prosperous future, but won’t come if they are relegated to drive a cab for a decade.

    So, perhaps Canadian industries should be embracing these highly accomplished “foreigners” and expat Canadians they treat like foreigners who have a much smarter work ethic, rather than considering them as interlopers and telling them to get in the back of the line, which is the current situation.

    The lie about a prosperous future and opportunity — delivered by Ottawa to potential immigrants — is the biggest challenge that immigrants cannot overcome.

  6. Thank you Jonathan for posting a link to this article on Hire Immigrants in Canada LinkedIn group.

    Please check discussions posted on this group.

    One point to take into consideration, is that the immigration process sets deadlines that must be met, regardless of the state of the economy.

    Knowledge of English or French is certainly not a barrier for highly skilled immigrants who face challenges in finding a job, after leaving successful careers in their home countries to pursue better opportunties.

    It would be interesting to study the decision making process at companies when it comes to hiring… as in an equal opportunity market, discrimination should not exist.

  7. Serene,

    I believe much of the economic argument Miles writes about here is that the immigration processes and their deadlines are part of a broken system in Canada, but broken in a different way than the one in the US. Here, many born and bred Canadians are anti legal immigration, while it is illegal immigration that causes much of the tension in the US for obvious reasons. In fact, the Republican Party, which is very much against giving illegal aliens legal status, wants to expand legal immigration and speed up the process. It was broken even prior to the recession, but populist anger has become more prominent since.

    If I may put on my purely (and sometimes uncomfortable) analytical and fiscally logical economic hat on for a while, the situation in Canada on many fronts related to immigration would improve if politicians had the courage to implement the following systems (which may be pie in the sky thinking).

    The immigration process:

    – allow in only those with the credentials (education, experience, income) likely to improve the economy and Canadians’ quality of life, and utilizing demand-side economics to determine which professions are most valuable. Australia’s points system springs to mind. The only exceptions: tightly regulated refugee and family immigration programs.
    – allow concurrent co-sponsorships for only these immigrants’ immediate families (spouses and minor children).
    – allow only citizens to sponsor parents and other immediate family over 21 on an immediate basis. Allow extended family applications, but only allow a limited quota annually. In other words, a landed immigrant would not be able sponsor extended family (including parents) until he or she achieved citizenship (similar to what occurs in the US). And require all prospective citizens be fluent in at least one of the official languages (the lack of which directly affects an immigrant’s chance for economic success).
    – all sponsors must have the financial support to petition such immigration application so that sponsored family members will not become a burden on society (at least for 5 years), and be legally required to reimburse the country if this occurs.
    – establish extremely stringent rules for determination if a refugee petition is valid, and a much more streamlined approach — in other words, months not many years.
    – landed immigrants who arrive as the spouse of a citizen must not have the same rights as occurs now, and do not obtain these rights until they go through an adjustment of status process (this will largely reduce marriage fraud, which often leaves the Canadian citizen on the hook financially — many citizens have seen their “loved one” disappear into the crowd within months, or even at the airport!). Even better, offer a fiance/fiancee visa, similar to the US (in that country, only idiots or the ill-informed marry a spouse overseas).

    Changes in Canadian society:

    – equal employment laws with teeth (including regulatory fines and private litigation) to ensure companies employ the most deserved regardless of where they lived or were educated (perhaps designed along the lines of the US EEOC, but with the requirement of companies tracking and reporting immigration, expatriate, and foreign education status).
    – provide governmental financial incentives such as tax breaks for companies bringing credentialed foreign workers on board, or perhaps voluntarily meeting standards.
    – legally abolish “Canadian experience” discrimination.
    – eliminate the “old boy” networks that are today keeping otherwise credentialed doctors, nurses, engineers, and other licensed professionals, out of the workforce often for close to a decade. For example, incorporate the American Medical Association requirements for foreign doctors (English proficiency, 3 exams and a residency — typically taking 3-4 years for the entire process, while it’s 8-9 years for a doctor to start practicing in Canada).

    If these changes were made, I dare say much of the populist bigotry against legal immigrants would greatly diminish, as well, along with making Canada less risk-adverse corporately, and more innovative and productive with all this “new blood” from world-class educated, successful and satisfied new immigrants.

    Unfortunately, I fear no politician would have the intestinal fortitude to even whisper such a plan, in fear of losing votes from the immigrant community, even if these or similar changes are a dire need for Canada’s future success, as they likely are.

    1. Does eliminating the old boy network mean new engineering grads like my niece who is very bright, but white and blonde, wont be hired. She was laid off in two engineering jobs this past year and the employer told her e press entry immigrants are taking all the engineering jobs, that’s why college grads can’t find work.

  8. As an immigrant it was easier setting up my own consulting practice to carry on my career than to get a job in Canada. I easily nail assignments with international agencies in Washington and elsewhere than getting a meaning job interview in Canada. Every dollar I earn from international projects is repatriated to Canada to take care of my family. Fish don’t swim upstream unless they are dead which is the prospect most immigrants truly face unless they are willing to challenge the status quo like I did and go into some kind of business for themselves.

  9. The whole stupid mess seems to me to be connected with a general failure to see the true size of the unemployment and under-employment problem – and the corresponding true scope for improvement in the performance of the economy – which I commented on here:-

    If we don’t deal with this properly, we will NEVER see any solution to these problems that immigrants to Canada have with finding work.

    I look forward to having some feedback from Professor Corak.

    If he thinks I’m talking nonsense then we need to do some accounting concerning the numbers involved, in order that I can arrive at a better understanding of what is really going on. I’m not here to dramatize or exaggerate; I deal in facts, analysis and cause-and-effect relationships. I’m not a professional economist; I’m a mechanical engineer from the U.K. but over the years I’ve become more and more interested in economics.

  10. This is a great post. I will follow Mr. Corak’s updates in the future very closely.

    As an immigrant I’ve faced the issues detailed in this article myself in the past. As an immigration blogger, I know that unemployment and the struggles of finding a job are my reader’s top concerns.

    The thing is that we cannot change the employer’s behaviors. We have change and reinvent ourselves (like Mark said above in his comment). Sometimes we have to start from positions we are overqualified for, but we already know is part of the game.

    Finally, I think that is Ottawa’s duty to address this. I agree with Mr. Corak that is no enough with changing the immigration process once more, it’s just a matter of educating the employers that year after year complaint for not finding the professionals they need (and have under their noses!)

  11. I would like to emphasize a point made by Jonathan Blaine about the “old boys’ networks” (old girls’ too). I think there is something very wrong with the way professional regulating bodies are set up. They seem to consist of existing professionals in the various fields only. That creates a conflict of interest. It is in the interest of established professionals to keep new arrivals out, because it creates shortages and increases their bargaining power.

    It would be more rational to include outsiders in these bodies. Sure, it makes sense to have nurses, for example, on the Ontario College of Nurses (which decides which nurses get accepted). But surely it would make sense to have representatives of other groups too – doctors, hospital administrators, patients, the general public. These groups may not have all the technical expertise needed, but they have other kinds of experience, plus they have interests which do not include being unnecessarily restrictive or obstructive.

  12. I am the sale associate working in Best buy today. But, I really find a hard time to find a job at the beginning days i came to U.S. Language is the first barrier. I have been killed during the interviews because of my poor language. Besides English proficiency, I also have faced other obstacles such as unfamiliarity with American culture and low social self-efficacy. This made me really hard to collaborate with my co work at the beginning.

  13. Though an old post but I want to share my experience of immigrating to Canada. I came from Pakistan with the following to my credit; close to 10years of work experience, a business degree from the world’s top 10ranked University in the UK, a Chevening scholarship and a Bond scholarship. What was considered to be an excellent work & academic background in our environs was shunned by Canadian businesses. Mind you my English is as good as it can get. The Government support centres focused on English skills and Resume preparation which by no means is an exercise in futility but had little relevance for someone like myself. Anyways I was left to do an odd job here or there at a call centre or a retail site.

    Now that I work internationally for the UK Government, I realized that Canada as a society or a country is definitely not international in its outlook. Any comparisons with Australia may be misleading as Australia is light years ahead in its vision of the world around us. Canadians seem to be happy trading with the US and have absolutely demonstrated little international mindedness, of course except contributing to some charity here or there.

    In terms of equity of international work experience with a Canadian one, it is a debate that is fostered only in a closed society oblivious to the world around themselves. So no comments on that aspect.

  14. All am after now is how much time do I need until I decide to get back to my home country in the state of not being able to secure a job in Canada!! I think the “Local Market” term should have been told to us before we proceed with our immigration process and we should have been told that not having the “local experience” is our utmost fear. I think there should be a reevaluation of the immigration process and with the new procedures, nothing have changed. the immigration criteria is the same but the changed the age group and the assessment of credentials. I assessed my credentials when I came here and until now am not able to find a job.
    The only thing I can say at this stage is it was a total disappointment, having know that before, I wouldnt have risked Jeopardizing my career back home.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I would be curious to know, if it is not out of place to ask, in which part of the country are you living, and did you arrive recently … say since 2007?

  15. Interesting to see that what I have experienced is borne out by studies,there is significant prejudice against hiring immigrants and against non French speakers in the Ottawa area. I guess I will end up having to go into business for myself and adopt a policy of only hiring other immigrants!

  16. I wish I read these blogs before I came and even before I became a CPA. Having been CFO of a major listed group, I can not even find work as a teller here in a Bank. I have never dealt with such uneducated HR agencies that so openly discriminate against immigrants. Luckily I am of European decent, otherwise things would have been even worse as I have learned. The world must be informed that THE SKILLS VISA is just a money making scheme.

    1. My brother is a professor born in Canada it took him 7 yrs to get into a university he was almost homeless at that point.

    2. In my opinion Canada should stop immigration for 5 yeaRs so our 2 million locals can find work

  17. Why would an immigrant give up their whole life and job in their country try and move to Canada with no job! I’m born here and I have to laugh when they pull them discrimination card, as my surname is french and because I’m born here white and do no speak french I cannot apply for a govt job in my own country try!I have been turned down job I ter iews because my surname is french not English…heck I was even made front of for where I was brought up…

  18. Why dont you do a study on why Canada has 2 million skilled unemployed, the highest ever, and no job creation and 1 million in food banks and the reason why there are 1 million in food banks when we had no food banks til 1984…

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