Calgary Herald

Tories pledge financial help to upgrade immigrant skills

Loan proposal would fill gap for newcomers

- RICHARD CUTHBERTSO­N rcuthberts­oN@ calgaryher­

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.

 ?? Leah Hennel, Calgary Herald ?? tommy Meza, an agricultur­al engineer from Guatemala, moved to calgary four years ago and cannot find work in his field because his education is not recognized here.
Leah Hennel, Calgary Herald tommy Meza, an agricultur­al engineer from Guatemala, moved to calgary four years ago and cannot find work in his field because his education is not recognized here.

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