Anecdotal accounts of physicians and engineers immigrating to Canada only to drive taxis or clean offices are common. The impression that today’s immigrants to Canada are not faring as well as those of past generations has been backed up with statistics. Yet at the same time, some regions of Canada are experiencing labour shortages. Positions go unfilled while qualified professional or skilled immigrants remain unemployed or underemployed.
One of the factors blamed for this disconnect between labour demand and supply is the failure to recognize efficiently and fairly the foreign qualifications of newcomers to Canada. Qualification recognition has been defined as
the process of verifying that the knowledge, skills, work experience and education obtained in another country is [sic] comparable to the standards established for Canadian professionals and tradespersons.
This process is often called “foreign credential recognition” as well, even though a credential is technically a degree or certificate, and does not include other types of qualifications, like skills and experience.
2 Measuring the Problem
When asked about their initial experience in Canada, almost half of new immigrants surveyed in 2005 for the Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Canada mentioned having difficulty finding an adequate job. With regard to specific difficulties reported within this group, 50% cited not enough Canadian job experience, 37% cited foreign experience not being accepted, and 35% cited foreign qualifications not being accepted.
Standard employment statistics support this qualitative information, indicating that, despite high levels of education, recent immigrants have struggled to establish themselves successfully in the labour market. Immigrant entry earnings fell in the 1980s and continued to decline in the 1990s and early 2000s. In recent years, immigrants, including those who are university educated, have become more likely to experience low income.
Immigrants are disproportionately represented in jobs requiring low levels of education and are more likely not to be working in the field for which they are trained. In 2006, 28% of recent immigrant men and 40% of recent immigrant women with university degrees worked in jobs with low educational requirements, compared to 10% of Canadian-born men and 12% of Canadian-born women. Highly educated immigrants were overrepresented in jobs with low educational requirements even after being in Canada for 15 years. With regard to regulated professions, in 2006, 24% of immigrants who acquired their education outside Canada were working in their trained profession, compared with 54% of Canadian-educated immigrants, and 62% of Canadian-born people. These difficulties are not universal; “immigrants who have earned degrees in countries with university systems similar to Canada, and those in particular fields of study are more likely to work in positions that align with their skills and experience.”
Longitudinal data reveal important information on when qualifications are recognized and by whom, as well as important differences in recognition of qualifications between immigrants. According to one study by Statistics Canada, the rate of recognition of foreign credentials and work experience was highest in the first six months after landing in Canada. Recognition of foreign work experience was found to be more prevalent than recognition of foreign credentials. Immigrant men were more successful than immigrant women at having their foreign credentials (33% vs. 22%) and work experience (51% vs. 23%) recognized. Among immigration categories, federal skilled worker principal applicants reported the highest recognition rates (38% for credentials and 51% for work experience), while the recognition rates for refugees were less than 15%.
This recent research, which is focused on immigrant employment and foreign qualification recognition, provides a nuanced picture and enhances our collective understanding of the problem. In turn, these studies should help employers, academic institutions, governments and other stakeholders devise appropriate responses.
3 Understanding the Challenges to Foreign Qualification Recognition
What obstacles do immigrants face in having their foreign experience and education recognized in Canada? Barriers may come in various forms. Sometimes newcomers lack knowledge about how to have their skills recognized. Fundamentally different education and training systems may make comparisons with Canadian credentials hard to draw. Non-proficiency in English or French - a barrier to almost any employment - can also affect qualification recognition. Financial constraints or entry barriers caused by professional association protectionism may also stand in the way of an immigrant’s becoming qualified in Canada.
It is important to note that issues with foreign qualification recognition are just one of a number of factors that may lead to a skilled immigrant’s being unemployed or underemployed in Canada. Employers may prefer to hire a Canadian-born candidate over an immigrant for any number of reasons, whether legitimate or not: an immigrant’s skills may not be relevant in Canada; the foreign credentials may be of a lower calibre than equivalent domestic qualifications; employers may require that candidates have Canadian work experience; an immigrant’s lack of official language knowledge may deter an employer, even if it has not stood in the way of credential recognition; discrimination may be at play; and Canadian employers may lack information about the foreign education and experience of today’s immigrants.
In other cases, societal factors may impede an immigrant’s integration into the workforce. Cultural differences may need to be bridged, and a lack of social networks for job hunting may need to be overcome. Rising levels of education among Canadian-born workers, especially in urban areas, where immigrants tend to settle (Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver), may also increase competition for immigrant job hunters.
In recent years, the issue of foreign qualification recognition has increasingly gained prominence as an area that needs addressing. However, it is proving difficult to “fix.”
4 Jurisdictional and Other Complexities
One of the main reasons that difficulties relating to qualification recognition continue year after year is the number of stakeholders involved. Generally speaking, under Canada’s constitutional division of powers, the provinces are responsible for licensing trades and professions. Across Canada, there are “close to 500 regulatory bodies governing 55 professions, and 13 provincial and territorial apprenticeship authorities governing approximately 50 trades.” Yet regulated occupations make up only about 15% of Canada’s labour market. In the other 85% of the labour market, the general qualifications of immigrant candidates are evaluated by the thousands of employers responsible for hiring professionals and skilled workers in the unregulated occupations, such as tourism, textiles and software technology.
In addition to the challenges stemming from the large number of stakeholders involved, efficient and fair foreign qualification recognition may be frustrated by the practices in some professions and trades that make it difficult for an immigrant to qualify without either a Canadian education or extensive retraining.
While foreign qualification recognition is a consideration in the labour market, foreign credential recognition is important to Canada’s more than 200 accredited post-secondary institutions, which must assess foreign education or credentials to place immigrant students in their programs.
5 Government Initiatives
Issues relating to credential recognition began to be identified in the 1980s. Interest grew through the 1990s, when several reports called on the federal government to work with stakeholders to improve credential recognition. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, private sector reports continued to draw attention to the problem; the government repeatedly recognized the problem and committed to improving it. In the Throne Speeches made in September 2002, February 2004, October 2004 and November 2008, the government committed to “work with its partners to break down the barriers to the recognition of foreign credentials …,” to “do its part to ensure speedier recognition of foreign credentials and prior work experience,” to “redouble its efforts … to help integrate [new Canadians] into the workforce” and to “work with the provinces to make the recognition of foreign credentials a priority.” The following government initiatives related to foreign qualification recognition are currently under way.
5.1 The Pan-Canadian Framework for the Assessment and Recognition of Foreign Qualifications
The Forum of Labour Market Ministers, consisting of federal, provincial and territorial representatives, announced the Pan-Canadian Framework for the Assessment and Recognition of Foreign Qualifications in November 2009. The Framework represents a common commitment to the principles of fairness, transparency, timeliness and consistency in foreign qualification recognition, and includes a one-year service standard for informing immigrants of the qualification recognition requirements they must meet, if any. The implementation strategies include enhanced pre-arrival supports, project-based funding to improve assessment and recognition, supports for immigrant labour market integration, and a list of short- and medium-term priority occupations.
The Forum of Labour Market Ministers targeted occupations for which internationally trained individuals must be advised according to the service standard if their qualifications will be recognized or if they will first need further training or education. A deadline of 31 December 2010 for the implementation of this standard of timely assessment was set for the following eight occupations: architect, engineer, financial auditor and accountant, medical laboratory technologist, occupational therapist, pharmacist, physiotherapist and registered nurse. A second phase provided for applying the timely assessment standard by the end of December 2012 to the following six occupations: dentist, engineering technicians, licensed practical nurse, medical radiation technologist, physician and teacher (K-12).
5.2 The Foreign Credentials Referral Office
The Foreign Credentials Referral Office (FCRO) is a federal initiative aimed at helping foreign-trained workers get the information they need on how to have their foreign credentials recognized in Canada. The Office does not provide most information directly. Rather, it provides path-finding and referral services to help people navigate the myriad organizations responsible for foreign credential recognition. The Office also helps people find related information, such as background about the labour market, job search tips, and guidance on how to have a degree or diploma translated into English or French.
The FCRO is the lead agent for pre-arrival support for credential recognition mentioned in the Pan-Canadian Framework:
Together with other government departments, provinces and territories and key partners, the FCRO facilitates the development of pre-arrival information and assessment tools and services as well as in-person counselling abroad.
Launched in May 2007, the FRCO initially received funding of $13.7 million over five years (2007-2008 to 2011-2012). In Budget 2009, it was allocated $13.75 million in subsequent funding over two years to support the implementation of the Pan-Canadian Framework.
5.2.1 Canadian Immigrant Integration Program
A major pre-arrival initiative is the Canadian Immigrant Integration Program, which was implemented by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada in 2007 in partnership with the Association of Canadian Community Colleges. It has been under FCRO responsibility since October 2010.
This program provides free two-day informational seminars to certain prospective immigrants in their home countries before they come to Canada to allow them to make more informed decisions about immigrating and to be better prepared for work once they arrive. Seminars include group labour market information sessions, one-on-one counselling sessions to create an individual integration plan, and the sharing of contact information for Canadian organizations that may assist the prospective immigrant in implementing his or her integration plan.
The program is offered in Guangzhou, China; New Delhi, India; Manila, Philippines; and a London office serves the United Kingdom, the Middle East, and Scandinavian countries.
The Association of Canadian Community Colleges will receive close to $15 million from 2010 to 2013 for this program. A longitudinal survey is being implemented to assess program outcomes on employment and credential recognition.
5.3 The Foreign Credential Recognition Program
The federal government has instituted a Foreign Credential Recognition Program, which is being implemented by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. Under this program, funding is provided for many projects to improve foreign credential recognition processes for targeted occupations or sectors, both regulated and non-regulated. Projects eligible for funding may be led by different Canadian organizations, including regulatory bodies, educational institutions, businesses, professional groups and sector councils. Federal funding is also available for projects led by provinces or territories.
The Foreign Credential Recognition Program received approximately $80 million in contribution funding from 2003-2004 to 2009-2010. An additional $14.72 million was earmarked in Budget 2009 for the Pan-Canadian Framework, and the program receives ongoing contribution funding of $21.4 million annually. To date, more than 170 projects have been funded to address barriers to workforce participation.
5.4 Working in Canada
On the Working in Canada website, also managed by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, foreign workers may determine what their occupation is called in Canada, whether it is a regulated occupation and, if it is regulated, the name and contact information of the regulator. Relevant labour market information (such as wage rates, job duties, skill requirements, and outlook and prospects) related to working in a specified occupation and Canadian city or region is also provided. The Working in Canada Tool generates a report that includes job descriptions, wages, skill requirements, language training and job opportunities based on occupation and location. It accesses data and information from a variety of government resources to provide information tailored to users.
5.5 Internationally Educated Health Professionals Initiative
The federal government has also targeted foreign qualification recognition in the health professions through the Internationally Educated Health Professionals Initiative, which focuses on improving access to credential assessment and verification and facilitating integration into the workforce. Since the inception of the Initiative, 140 projects have received funding in the seven priority occupations of physician, nurse, pharmacist, physiotherapist, occupational therapist, medical laboratory technologist and medical radiation technologist.
The Initiative was first funded in Budget 2005 for $75 million over five years. Funding was renewed in 2010, and the Initiative currently receives $18 million annually.
5.6 Provincial Initiatives
As previously noted, under our Constitution the provinces and territories are responsible for licensing trades and professions. These governments have implemented a variety of measures to address foreign qualification recognition. For example, Alberta has created the Immigrant Access Fund, a loan program for accreditation expenses. In British Columbia, immigrants can access the Skills Connect for Immigrants Program, which offers a range of employment-related services, including credential recognition, for a limited number of sectors. In Ontario, bridge training programs, available for a number of sectors, are intended to provide training and orientation to newcomers to help them find work in their fields.
The Ontario legislature passed the Fair Access to Regulated Professions Act, 2006 and created an Office of the Fairness Commissioner to administer the Act. Similar legislation was passed in Manitoba (2007) and in Nova Scotia (2008). In 2009, the Quebec government established a Commissaire aux plaintes (complaints commissioner) within the Office des professions du Québec to handle individual complaints and monitor credential recognition.
6 Implications for Selecting Economic Class Immigrants
To date, much focus has been put on programs to improve recognition of the foreign qualifications of immigrants who are already here. Another approach is to choose who may immigrate to Canada in the economic stream, based, in part, on whether their credentials have already been, or would easily be, recognized in Canada. Examples of this approach include programs that place the emphasis on Canadian experience or education and those requiring prior assessment of credentials.
6.1 Emphasis on Canadian Experience or Education
Within the economic stream of immigration to Canada, federal and provincial governments have been placing a greater emphasis on Canadian experience and education as eligibility criteria.
At the federal level, the government created the Canadian Experience Class (CEC) in 2008. Foreigners who qualify for permanent resident status in Canada under the CEC have either already worked in Canada as temporary foreign workers or have studied in Canada as foreign students.
This experience in Canada is a strong basis for future economic success. Those who have been employed in Canada have already proven their ability to integrate into the workforce and contribute to the economy. As for foreign students, at least one study has found that when immigrants arrive as young people and complete their education in Canada, they fare better in the labour market than do older immigrants and those who gained their experience and education abroad. This finding is consistent with the assumption that foreign students who graduate in Canada have proven their ability in one of the official languages and have attained domestic education and qualifications that are easily recognized and valued by Canadian employers. Whether immigrants accepted under the CEC will enjoy higher levels of success than immigrants accepted under other streams remains to be seen, but research on immigrants with “CEC-like” characteristics found that they had higher earnings than skilled workers four years after landing.
The federal government also incorporates Canadian experience into the selection grid for federal skilled workers - points are assigned for arranged employment. The Australian government takes a slightly different approach: applicants to the Australian skilled migration program can claim points for an Australian diploma or trade qualification and points for employment in a skilled occupation in Australia, in addition to qualifications obtained overseas.
At the provincial level, an increasing number of immigrants are being admitted each year under provincial nominee programs (PNPs). Nine provinces and two territories now have PNP agreements with the federal government under which they may nominate prospective economic immigrants using their own criteria. While criteria vary from province to province and territory, most programs require an applicant to have already secured a job in the province or territory in order to qualify. In 1999, 477 people immigrated to Canada under PNPs (including both applicants and their dependants). That number grew to 17,095 by 2007. The 2012 immigration plan predicts that between 42,000 and 45,000 immigrants will be admitted to Canada as permanent residents under PNPs.
A recent evaluation of the PNP found that immigrants entering Canada through this program had generally positive economic outcomes, although the findings differed by province and stream of PNP. The evaluation found that PNP immigrants who had initially entered Canada as temporary foreign workers were more likely to have a job offer prior to landing, have a job at a higher job classification, and report a higher salary.
Quebec does not have a provincial nominee program. Instead, it is party to the Canada-Quebec Accord Relating to Immigration and Temporary Admission of Aliens, under which the province has developed its own points system for selecting independent immigrants to Quebec. The Quebec government offers a program similar to the CEC, called the Québec Experience Program, which came into effect in February 2010.
6.2 Prior Assessment of Credentials
Providing information about credential recognition to immigrants in their countries of origin has been a growing focus of government and stakeholder efforts to facilitate the process. The Australian government goes even further, requiring since 1999 that principal applicants in regulated occupations apply to the relevant licensing body for screening before they qualify to migrate. According to one academic, Australia’s strategy is “designed to avoid years of forced labour market displacement or skill discounting due to non-recognition of qualifications.”
In New Zealand, assessment of international qualifications is also incorporated into the points system. Some qualifications from some countries have received prior recognition and are assigned points directly in the skilled worker grid. All others are required to obtain an assessment by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority before points can be assigned.
The suggestion that Canada require credential recognition before immigration was raised during the 2010 evaluation of the Federal Skilled Worker Program. However, according to one civil servant, “[T]here are limits to how much can be done pre-arrival.” In particular, difficulties in arranging for testing to take place overseas and limits to overseas competency-based assessment were mentioned.
Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney has identified pre-recognition of credentials as part of his vision for future immigration policy. He announced recently that the government is proposing that Federal Skilled Workers have their foreign education credentials assessed and verified by designated organizations before they arrive in Canada.
There are limitations to these selection approaches to foreign qualification recognition. Some critics might argue that selecting immigrants based on employers’ preferences could reduce immigrant diversity and lead to an unfair preference for immigrants from developed, Western, English- or French-speaking countries. Such an approach could also sever the link between responsibility for selection and integration, as employers play no role in their employees’ long-term integration into Canada.
In addition, it should be noted that the economic immigration stream is just one of Canada’s three main categories of immigrants. Indeed, in 2011, only 64,353 people were admitted to Canada as principal applicants under economic class programs, representing 25.8% of the total number of permanent residents admitted that year (248,660). The other 74.2% of immigrants were spouses and dependants of economic class principal applicants (36.9%), family class immigrants (22.7%), refugees (11.2%) and others (3.3%). Since more than half of Canada’s newcomers are admitted to the country on grounds other than economic, no amount of modification to the economic classes will eliminate foreign qualification recognition issues for many immigrants. As long as other streams of immigration exist (such as the refugee and family class immigrant streams), and principal applicants are accompanied to Canada by their families, there will be a continuing need to assess and recognize the qualifications that newcomers bring to this country.
The decades-long decline in the economic circumstances of recent Canadian immigrants is not in question - today’s immigrants are not doing as well as earlier generations of immigrants to Canada. The failure of Canadian institutions and governments to ensure the fair and efficient recognition of the qualifications newcomers bring to this country is just one of several potential explanations for this trend. At the same time, jurisdictional and other complexities make improving foreign qualification recognition a formidable task.
The federal and provincial governments have put various programs in place, aiming to better inform immigrants about qualification recognition before they emigrate and to assist them upon arrival in Canada. In addition, the federal and provincial governments are making greater use of Canadian experience and education in immigration programs, such as the Canadian Experience Class and provincial nominee programs, which may facilitate better economic outcomes for immigrants. Monitoring these initiatives will help to inform future policies.
However, because a high percentage of immigrants are not specifically selected for their economic potential, pressure to improve foreign qualification recognition and economic outcomes for newcomers will persist.
* This is a revised version of Recognition of the Foreign Credentials of Immigrants, prepared by Penny Becklumb and Sandra Elgersma of the Library of Parliament. [ Return to text ]
† Library of Parliament Background Papers provide in-depth studies of policy issues. They feature historical background, current information and references, and many anticipate the emergence of the issues they examine. They are prepared by the Parliamentary Information and Research Service, which carries out research for and provides information and analysis to parliamentarians and Senate and House of Commons committees and parliamentary associations in an objective, impartial manner. [ Return to text ]