February 24, 2024

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What boundary crossing can tell us about the labour market experiences of immigrants in Canada

6 min read
What boundary crossing can tell us about the labour market experiences of immigrants in Canada

Alka Kumar is a Mitacs ELEVATE Postdoctoral Fellow at Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Migration and Integration at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU). Prior to migrating to Canada from India 15 years ago, she used to teach Literary Studies at the University of Delhi.

When I first began to research topics in migration for my doctoral dissertation, I encountered the concept of boundary crossing and boundary work. The rich potential for theorizing inherent in it resonated with the researcher inside me. For instance, the study into in-between spaces this concept enabled, for considering hybridity and growth and for bridging differences – all these traits carried special meaning as these values were dear to me.

Back then, as part of my day job in the newcomer settlement sector, I was supporting my clients – most of whom were from racialized communities. These were internationally educated professionals (IEPs) and I worked with them during their career and employment transitions, not only to support them in navigating the labour market challenges they were experiencing, but also to help them realize the high professional aspirations that had brought them to Canada in the first place. Boundary crossing became one of the important frameworks and tools I found beneficial for understanding the stories of struggles they shared with me and for providing the career development support they needed. I helped them see more clearly how they might connect their past with their present and use that understanding to envision a new future for themselves in Canada.

Particularly in the case of the highly skilled economic class of individuals who migrate to Canada – be they medical professionals, engineers, professors or others with expertise in regulated or non-regulated occupations – when individuals face repeated barriers, related to slow credentialing and licensing processes, or are met with rejections or total silence in response to resumes, they often struggle with making sense of who they would ‘be’ or ‘become’ in this new country they were so excited to move to. The lack of timely settlement leads to underutilization of skills and deskilling in the case of many. The delays can have significant detrimental psychological impacts on the individuals.

Reviewing some of the findings from my research on the labour market barriers IEPs encounter in Canada – conducted a decade ago and in Winnipeg – feels both interesting and sad as it seems little has changed. As anecdotal evidence and research literature in migration studies suggest, although the local context presents particular industry-specific challenges and opportunities, such as leaving some sectors with more gaps to fill, shared commonalities exist when it comes to overall job market issues and trends, as well as aspirational and real solutions.

Further, it is important to examine these issues from the perspective of those experiencing the resettlement and integration journeys. When conducting my study, although I was well aware about the range of services the formal settlement sector provides to newcomers in Canada, I wanted to learn from individuals with ‘lived experience’ how they experienced their struggles and what they considered to be lacking by way of supports that could have helped them solve their job-market integration puzzle more easily.

One of the ways they described this aspiration was the desire for a ‘softer landing.’ For many respondents, this meant easy access to entry-level jobs, retraining and upskilling opportunities soon on arrival, in occupations aligned with their training and work experience. This would mean the ability to make minimum wage to pay bills instead of hustling to make ends meet while dealing with everything else, including urgent matters related to family settlement. Such a measure, they believed, would help individuals align with the relevant workplace in a timely manner, enhancing their social capital as well as focusing on their own learning, growth and perhaps soft-skills acquisition through finding supportive mentors in their own field. Some respondents saw the development of entrepreneurial opportunities and abilities early on as related gains and very important, and that would be a win-win as it would serve the economy well too.

I must add that over the past several years there has been an expansion of such opportunities through special programs. For instance, there are accelerator pilot programs for newcomer women geared to help them secure employment; and special grants in niche areas are granted to agencies. Based on a partnership model, often with educational institutions, these special programs facilitate upskilling through micro-credentials training; most have internships or practicum opportunities so options for long-term employment are a real possibility. Similarly, there are loan programs that newcomers and immigrants can apply for, to go back to school or train for jobs where there are worker shortages.

But the problem is these are not part of regular services being offered and limited spots are available. Also, information about such additional opportunities is not available in a transparent fashion. As a result, the programs end up serving a fraction of the people who actually need them. In my view, both top-down measures are important, as are those that come from bottom-up spaces and rise to the top, creating a ground swell. The former can be instrumental by being integrated into policy frameworks to create a scale-up effect and the latter help articulate lived experience stories, highlighting and amplifying ‘real’ voices who need the right help at the right time. It is through the inclusion of these perspectives into decision making and into leadership circles that it can be ensured that funds going into resettlement and integration are appropriately targeted and optimally utilized.

One of the much hoped-for policy initiatives, recently announced, relates to the new legislation that makes it illegal for employers in Ontario to list ‘Canadian experience’ as a requirement in job listings. While this is encouraging, for those who work in this sector and those who utilize it for their employment-related needs, we know these are grey areas; and in the context of a hidden and discriminatory job market, where accountability measures are much-needed to ensure compliance, regulations often do not have the ability to change much on the ground.

As an example, employers do not have to provide real reasons for not hiring a certain candidate, and they might internally reject a candidate for any reason, be it racism, their assumption that they would not be a good fit in the team or that they perceive them as lacking soft skills or Canadian experience.

Concluding with the boundary-crossing metaphor, I must add that in my own work in the migration field over the past several years, I have been working both as a researcher and as a practitioner, believing as I do in the equal importance of pursuing deep knowledge that comes from academic research while keeping my ear close to the ground so I continue learning from lived experience stories of real people. I believe if we can communicate respectfully across sectoral boundaries, we can learn much from each other and build solutions more easily.

Both the forest and the trees are important if we want to fully understand any scenario, address a tricky issue or solve a wicked problem. To do this we need to look both at its macro and micro aspects. Part two next week will delve into this big picture to help us see how the migration landscape has shifted in the past 10 years, both internationally and in Canada.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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