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What are some career strategies for new immigrants?

This article is by Susan Qadeer.

In This Article

It is pretty clear that many new immigrants are having a long and difficult time getting established in their chosen occupations. While there are many causes including economic, political and social, these solutions are a collective struggle and need to be solved at a community level. They are usually beyond the control of the individual.

This article is aimed at the steps an individual might take to improve chances of success.

While most new immigrants have done some research, talked to others and have a pretty good idea of what to expect, the reality of joblessness and "odd jobs" is still a cruel shock especially to older well-established professionals. Starting at the bottom twice in a lifetime is not often a welcome prospect and that much harder both physically and psychologically, when you are older.

Let's Look at the Problems

Little Canadian Work or Cultural Experience

Many employers don't want to hire an employee who might not understand how things are done in Canada. This could range from the expected sanitation in handling food and greeting customers to the words chosen in writing a formal business letter. There are Canadian work and cultural expectations. You will need to show that you know what they are and are able to do them.

Networking

Until those in a position to hire value diversity or are forced to provide a diverse work environment, hiring will continue to happen through networks of friends, relatives and connections. This is as true of large corporations as small ethnic businesses. It may feel like nepotism or polite racism and both are possible, but networking is the norm. Check out a list of professional networks for immigrants.

Language

While some new Canadians may know several major languages and dialects, if their command of English is not up to a native speaker's standard, this is a major disadvantage. An accent that is difficult to understand may compound this problem. Again, this may feel unfair, but it is the norm.

Cultural Prohibitions and Differences

Some cultural factors or religious prohibitions may make getting a job even more difficult. For instance, if you are not comfortable shaking hands with someone of the opposite sex, this could be a major barrier, particularly in a job interview.

Incurred Obligations

Getting settled in a new country often involves extensive help from others. This could come from relatives, friends or people you are lucky to meet along the way. This may feel like a personal obligation or imposing too much of a burden on family or friends.

Some Solutions

No Canadian Work or Cultural Experience

If you don't have Canadian experience, you need to get some. You can do this in a number of ways. While no one wants to work for free, you may want to consider this for a short while. Volunteering in the area you want to work will help you prove that you know what is expected and will give you some contacts in the field. Internships are another way to gain work experience. There are formal internships set up for different career areas or you could set one up for yourself by approaching an employer. Your letter requesting an internship should be clear in what you can offer and should include a résumé that reflects your unique education, work experiences and occupational assets. Be sure two people who are knowledgeable about résumés and letters see it before you send it.

While there is no agreement on what is Canadian culture, some things do stand out, particularly in the job search process. It is necessary to convince potential employers that you are a competent person, know how to manage yourself, learn quickly and are easy to get along with. Unfortunately telling them this is not enough. You need to demonstrate this with stories about yourself, your experiences and your accomplishments. The stories will indicate how well you understand what the cultural expectations are. You will need to practice telling them before any interview. These stories have to make their point quickly and mustn't appear boastful. This is marketing yourself and needs to be done even if you tend towards humility.

Networking

If you are a newcomer, you are at a disadvantage without an established network. The only way to rectify this situation is to attempt to make up for lost contacts by becoming a joiner. Join community groups, professional associations, interest clubs, sports teams or any other groupings that will put you in contact with people you wouldn't ordinarily meet. It is important to attempt to socialize and get to know these people. Shyness is not an option. Your network is thin; you are missing all those childhood friends, former employers and relatives who could introduce you to an employer. You will need to work extra hard to make those contacts.

If an inability to secure employment feels like racism, although the Ontario Human Rights code protects people from racism in employment, this is often difficult to prove.

Language Ability

A high level of English language ability is necessary in many work settings, particularly those that involve writing or customer service where something needs to be explained. There is no easy answer to this problem except to find instruction at the required level. In addition, the TV should be switched off and the radio switched on since this will improve listening skills. While many ESL teachers will be optimistic and positive with enthusiastic students, employers will demand more than this. Language learning is a longtime skill. You are bound to make mistakes in pronunciation and grammar. If you are able to ask for and accept help, this task is easier and faster.

Cultural Differences and Prohibitions

One of the best ways to determine if you are doing something correctly is to remember to observe. For instance, if dressing well in your own culture means starched white cotton shirt and pants, this is not the clothes of choice for a Canadian winter, much less an interview, no matter how well-dressed you feel. Clothing style doesn't have to be a problem. If you are uncomfortable wearing a skirt because you are used to covering your legs, a pants suit is perfectly acceptable. Very different clothes however may make you stand out and have people questioning how well you might fit in. Only you will be able to say what differences are not negotiable for you. Some cultural and religious prohibitions can be real obstacles and others are hardly noticed.

Obligations

The help you get may feel like an obligation and with some relationships, it will be an obligation. If you are getting help from employees in an agency, you can rest assured that they get paid to help you and your only obligation is a "Thanks". It's often a real plus for them if you keep them informed on your progress.

If you are getting help and support from friends and relatives, besides thanking them and offering to repay the favor in some way that is possible, you might consider that repaying obligations may come on a longer time scale, even the next generation. A very generous and helpful person once said, "your obligation is to do the same for someone else, when you can."

Get Help

You may have been thinking and working on your career problems yourself but it may be time to seek some help. Someone who knows your field, knows you or is just good at thinking creatively may be able to see things you don't see. For instance, how to combine past training with current Canadian needs or errors you may be making in how you present yourself. Some schools and agencies provide free career counselling. You really have nothing to lose in seeking an opinion and feedback.

There are many agencies offering job skills training and support groups. It is often nicer to get and give help while you are learning and working towards getting a good job.

Things to Consider

A Portfolio

Keep track of all your courses, contacts, achievements etc. You never know when you will need something. Some fields require a formal portfolio such as graphic design or acting, but it is useful in every area to keep a record. An example might be if you are a teacher and have excellent student evaluations, this can help demonstrate your ability to present material if you are going for a position that requires this, such as sales. Your personal portfolio can also help you remember the courses you have taken, committees you have served on and successes you have had.

Research

Research means not only reading but also seeking out people who can give you some different perspectives. An information interview is a way of seeking advice and information from people working in the field you are interested in. They can tell you about courses you might need, overall trends and how you might get started. If you are lucky you might get a name or two of someone else who has advice for you or even a job lead. Your research might also include free government programs or courses that can help you. Private schools may charge more for courses but it doesn't mean you get superior education or training.

A Career Move

Many new Canadians may not be able to enter the workforce in their former occupations. For some, particularly those who had little choice in their education and training, becoming an immigrant is an opportunity to select and change careers. If you are considering a career move, you may want to consider a field that calls for certification. These fields favor or have to hire people with the relevant training and that cuts down on the competition. For instance, the field of health records administration has a certifying examination, as does orthotic/prosthetic technician.

You may want to research those fields that the economic forecasters say are expanding. You won't want to try and compete in a very crowded field unless you are excellent at it and can prove it. How can your past experiences and education contribute to a new field? If you were an architect in your own country, would you consider training as a building inspector or a mortgage broker? If you were a physician, would you train in occupational health and safety? Sometimes a course or two is all that is needed rather than a different degree or diploma. This is especially true if the field you want to enter bears some relationship to a field you were educated in or worked at previously.

Consider night courses in an Ontario college or university over a private school that is usually more costly and less recognized.

Small Talk

Finding things to chat about is useful while you are waiting. I know someone who met his second wife while waiting outside a courtroom to divorce his first. You will need to participate in small talk before an interview gets underway, when meeting new people socially or when stuck in an elevator. Staying abreast of non-debatable current events is useful if you don't know anything about sports and have already discussed the weather.

Résumés

Consider your résumé a work in progress. You may have to make changes for every different job you apply for. No matter how many times you read it over, you may not catch a spelling or grammatical error. There are no rules you must follow but you want your résumé to help you look different from all the others and at the same time be standard enough that an employer can find your information easily. A one-page résumé, if you can manage it, ensures that an employer won't miss something because it was on the second page. Research shows that on average, an employer takes under 30 seconds to review a résumé. Many new Canadians fail to put non-Canadian work experience and education on their résumé, somehow believing that it is not relevant. All education and work experience can attest to your abilities and work ethic, but you have to be the one to demonstrate this. You can do this in the way you write your résumé and in what you say in an interview.

Interviews

Prepare yourself for this very important event. Even if you aren't successful, it is an opportunity for learning and connecting with new people. Not only will you want to research the company, practice answers that reflect your best achievements and qualifications but turn your answers into memorable short stories so the interviewer won't forget you. Take your cues from the interviewer as to how much talking you should do. An easy back and forth conversational tone is often a good sign for how the interview is going. Answer the question asked even if you feel you have something more important to say. You will probably get some time near the end to ask questions or add to what you have said, unless this is a highly structured interview. If you find yourself in a highly structured panel interview, you will want to elaborate on your answers since this type of interview may not allow for a conversation and the interview could be short and you won't have had an opportunity to showcase yourself.

Come prepared with a question or two even if you don't have one. You may be asked if you have a question and, "no" could make you sound disinterested or unreflective. Also come prepared for tough questions such as asking you to speak about your weaknesses or long-range career goals. Tell the interviewer what you intend to do about any lack of skills, particularly if this deficit becomes clear in the interview. For instance, if a car would be useful, let the interviewer know that you are taking driving lessons. If French is required and yours is rusty, let the interviewer know that you are prepared to take a brush up course. Allow your personality to shine through; that will make you more memorable. The stories you use to answer their questions and the way you tell them will help the interviewer distinguish you from the other candidates.

Some time after the interview, if it is clear that you didn't get the job, you will want to attempt to get some information on how you could improve for the next time. Not all interviewers will agree to tell you but it is worth trying. This has to be done in a friendly, non-pressured way or it might be felt as harassment.

Your Assets

It is helpful to be in a good mood when you are looking for a job. One way to facilitate this is to remind yourself of your assets. Actually, you want to catalogue those assets because you will need to remind a potential employer of them. Here are some assets. How many of them do you have?

  • Many new Canadians speak a number of other languages. These languages become useful in dealing with the public in multicultural cities. They also become useful in organizations that are international or hope to be. Don't forget to include all your languages on your résumé.
  • Although many new Canadians are prepared to leave their last career because they feel they won't be able to practice it in Canada, you don't leave all the skills you learned in a work environment. These skills range from getting along with colleagues to running technical equipment and everything in between. Don't make the mistake of thinking your work experience and education is no longer relevant to your new life. A former engineer who becomes a bookkeeper still demonstrates a facility with numbers, an ability to learn and a capacity for independent work.
  • Most new Canadians recognize that life will be difficult and nonetheless choose to come to Canada. They know why they have made this move and their motivation to succeed is strong. They are often willing to retrain, take lower level jobs at lower pay and are prepared for hardship. They are grateful for any opportunity to enhance their skills. What more would an employer want?

The most important asset is your ability to think critically about your situation. Following the mistakes or mistaken advice of others may only mean that you are all doing the wrong thing. Advice needs to be considered, confirmed by others, treated as a possibility and weighed against knowledge, instincts and good sense.

Contributed by Susan Qadeer, a personal and career counsellor with decades of experience. Susan currently works with college students.

For More Information

  • Planning to Work in Canada? An Essential Workbook for Newcomers - This workbook is for people who are considering moving to Canada or who have recently arrived. It will help you gather information about living and working in Canada.
  • Professional Networks for Immigrants - A list of professional networks run by and for internationally-trained professionals. It covers many professions and sectors.
  • Alternative Jobs to Regulated Professions - Get up to 5 alternative jobs (non-regulated employment) for different regulated professions. Read and compare key information about each job. Watch videos of newcomers talking about their experiences of entering and working in an alternative job.
  • Geert Hofstede Cultural Dimensions - Canada - This looks at how cultural values influence the workplace in Canada.
  • JVS Career Voice - This blog for job seekers has information about career choices, finding a job, marketing yourself and more. You can submit questions. The blog posts are written by experts in employment.
Last Updated: September 29, 2011
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