Tories pledge financial help to upgrade immigrant skills
Loan proposal would fill gap for newcomers
Tommy Meza arrived in Calgary almost four years ago from Guatemala with a university degree in agricultural engineering, but since then has worked only “survival jobs.”
The 33-year-old’s ambition has been thwarted because he lacks the Canadian qualifications in his chosen field.
In an effort to get professional work, Meza has been improving his qualifications, both through local employment programs and university courses.
“I have been paying my tuition, but it has been a tough situation,” said Meza, who has a wife and nine-monthold son.
Unable to find professional work, Meza has grown frustrated, taking temporary positions such as records management to make ends meet.
He is just the type of newcomer the federal Tories are targeting after they announced Wednesday a loan program for immigrants trying to upgrade their training so their foreign credentials are recognized in Canada.
The Conservative proposal, which the party says will cost $6 million a year, is welcomed by Meza and some local immigrant agency officials. They say training is an expensive prospect for a newcomer with little savings and no credit rating.
Still, some note the issue of foreign credentials has many complicated aspects that are difficult to tackle.
In Alberta, immigrant work issues are watched with keen interest, as the province suffered labour shortages during the last boom.
In 2007, a provincial study found almost half of immigrants surveyed said they were overqualified for their current job, while nearly two-thirds said their education or work experience in their home country wasn’t recognized here.
The problem of highly educated immigrants working low-skill jobs is not new, nor is it Canada-specific.
Part of the issue is how the country picks which people come to Canada, said Fariborz Birjandian of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society.
He points to engineers: they are highly educated and many speak good English. But when they arrive here, there just isn’t the market for more engineers, said Birjandian, who supports the Tory loan proposal.
Calgary Southeast Tory incumbent Jason Kenney, federal immigration minis- ter, said the government has introduced changes to help fast-track skilled immigrants in needed job categories. Ottawa has earmarked $50 million to streamline recognition of foreign credentials.
Kenney said the new loan program should fill the gap left when immigrants need to upgrade their skills, but have few means to pay for it.
“They’re stuck. They have little or no savings upon arrival, they have no credit rating in Canada and they’re often working a survival job to feed their family,” he said.
But not everyone thinks the loan proposal will solve much.
Ray Martin, the NDP candidate in Edmonton East, said there’s a tendency for some professions to underestimate credentials from other parts of the world.
“At least they’re recognizing that there is a problem, ” Martin said of the Conservative proposal, “but I don’t think the loans are going to have much of an impact at all.”
Another key question is language, according to Calgary Centre Liberal candidate Jennifer Pollock. The credentials can be there, but skilled work will likely be out of reach if the immigrant isn’t fluent in English.
She noted the Conservatives decided last year to cut $53 million from settlement funding and the Liberal party plans to boost language instruction, if elected.
“Many of the people, once they do get credentials, are still barred if they don’t have language that seems fully fluent,” she said.
This debate comes as Alberta’s employment minister warns Canada must engage in a broad discussion on immigration to fill the exodus of retiring baby boomers.
Thomas Lukaszuk notes Canada’s unemployment was not as high as many other countries during the recession.
“When the economy picks up, you start feeling shortages and that impacts our quality of life,” he said.
Kenney noted the loan proposal is similar to a pilot program in Alberta. Lukaszuk said it’s been so successful that repayment rates are actually higher than regular loans.
Some of those facing expensive fees are foreign doctors who arrive in Alberta.
The first step for many is to write a series of exams. with some costing more than $2,000, according to Dr. Nancy Zacarias, president of the Alberta International Medical Graduates Association.
Loanstohelpcoverexpenses are a good idea, she said.
“Passing the exam is hard enough, because they’re not cheap,” she said.