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Chinese economist faces barriers to Canadian job market

When Maggie Chen worked in Shanghai as an economist for the Chinese government, she looked at macro-economic trends in order to analyze the impact on the labour force, vocational training and the social-insurance system. After immigrating to Canada just over three years ago, Chen found herself in the middle of something of an economic experiment. The test: Will the Toronto job market embrace the skills and experience she has, or will she have to alter her career path to make a living?
“I’m struggling with switching between my plan A and B,” says Chen, 41. “It’s a cost-efficiency evaluation problem.”
As an economist, Chen has a greater awareness than most Canadians of the factors that determine what kind of job she will get. Her decision to move to Toronto with her son was motivated mostly by lifestyle. She liked Canada’s fresh air and clean water, as well as the social environment and the predictability of life here: “With systems in Canada, if you want something, you know what you have to put in and you know what your outcome will be.”
But she soon faced the obstacles faced by many new Canadians: integrating into the workforce. The well-known example of the cab-driving doctor is only the most extreme scenario. A 2009 report by the Conference Board of Canada points out that lack of recognition of international qualifications and experience, lack of Canadian experience, language barriers, lack of workplace integration and diversity programs, and discrimination all get in the way, adding up to a lot of wasted talent. An off-cited Conference Board report from 2001 estimated that the cost of not recognizing the credentials and skills of Canadians, notably immigrants, is between $4.1 billion and $5.9 billion annually. As a result, the earnings of recent immigrants are, on average, $5.04 less per hour than Canadian-born employees.
After arriving in Canada, Chen spent a year studying accounting at Seneca College and then landed a six-month contract at The Martin Prosperity Institute. While at the institute, she contributed to a discussion paper on where Toronto’s service workers tend to live, where they tend to work and the transportation and career-development issues they face. “We realized that service workers don’t have a lot of time for training, and employers aren’t going to find a lot of time to train them.”

She also co-authored a paper, The Geography of the Creative Economy in China, which applies the theories of Richard Florida, author and head of the Prosperity Institute, to China’s creative economy, finding that it is unevenly distributed across the country, making it “unlikely that China will shift to a post-industrial economy all at once.”
After her contract at the Martin Prosperity Institute ended, Chen found herself unemployed for six months. To pay the bills, she took a job as a bookkeeper working for a fertilizer company in Aurora. Although she continues to look for work as an economist, she wonders if becoming a certified accountant might be the more practical option. In a way, Chen’s still an economist, watching herself as a subject.
“It’s very interesting to me, because you can see that Canada needs skilled workers and it’s ready to integrate them, but there is a huge cost on both sides. The system has to be flexible, to train people, to accommodate diversity. But for immigrants, they need to be flexible, too, which takes time and effort. I can spend years looking for the right job or I spend that time studying something else. The terrible thing is how to decide. One of the biggest costs to immigrants is the uncertainty.”
The good news side of Chen’s experience is the growing number of resources available for new Canadians and awareness of the challenges they face. It’s not like Canada can afford to snub its immigrants. Susan Brown, a senior policy advisor for labour force development at the City of Toronto, is familiar with Chen’s situation, both theoretically and personally. As Chen’s career mentor through the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council, Brown has been Chen’s cheerleader through her job search.
“The thing about Maggie is that she has a plan A and a plan B. And she’s made sure that plan B isn’t waiting tables. New Canadians have to make sure that making money doesn’t take them too far away from their goals,” says Brown, who has a PhD in sociology. “The trick is to support immigrants to see the skills and education they have as being broad enough so they don’t find themselves back at zero.”
Salman Kureishy, manager of the International Accounting and Finance Professionals (IAFP) Program at Ryerson University’s Chang School, immigrated to Canada from India five years ago. He gave himself a year to find a good job. He lucked out, finding one in less than nine months.
“I almost lost my way myself,” he says. “Very often, people have to make compromises and work below their skill level. Sometimes, as long as it’s possible to move up the ladder, that can work.”
Kureishy is working with the Toronto Financial Services Alliance and the Conference Board of Canada to create an online tool for financial professionals to help them determine their own skill sets and how they meet job requirements.
“Sometimes applicants aren’t really sure what their gaps and deficiencies are,” Kureishy says.
Aside from the lack of personal networks that people born in Canada have, Brown isn’t sure where Chen’s gaps are. It’s not language. It’s not that there’s much difference, from a researcher’s perspective, between how you’d study economy of China and how you’d study Canada. It’s not lack of trying. “I find Maggie drags me along as a mentor,” says Brown. (A 2009 study by an economics professor at the University of British Columbia suggests that not having an English-sounding last name can be a factor.)
Chen, meanwhile, continues to earn her bookkeeping paycheque, even as she see the world through an economist’s — and optimist’s — eyes.
“One of the things China can learn from Toronto is to increase its tolerance, which is important to attract talent,” says Chen. “People really try to help other people and there’s tremendous economic value in that.”