Immigrant IT pros face a tough job market in Canada

Thousands of highly-skilled IT professionals come to Canada every year, hoping to land a top job in their field. But unfortunately, some begin their Canadian careers at Tim Hortons instead.

Technical skills are, generally speaking, universal. But a common problem newcomers encounter when searching for their first job is their lack of Canadian experience. Oleg Dolghii, a 32-year-old immigrant from Moldova, worked as an IT manager for a large financial company back home. He had high hopes for his new professional life in Canada. As far as he was concerned, his qualifications spoke for themselves.

But he was in for a rough ride. “I didn’t know before coming here that Canadian experience is a really important factor here,” he says.

Dolghii thought he’d find something in his field; if not a managerial position, then at least a network administrator job. But after 20 interviews in three months, all he could find was an low-paid IT support job, facing constant pressure to work night shifts and commuting two hours back and forth.

He says he was lucky to even land that job. He speaks four languages (Moldovan, Russian, English and French), which was an important qualification for an IT support role. He speaks sympathetically of other immigrants with IT skills who spent their first year working at a coffee shop.

Eventually, he found his way to Stafflink Solutions Ltd., a Toronto IT staffing firm that places many new immigrants. Fortunately for Dolghii, as it turned out, because some staffing firms don’t even tell job-seekers how important experience in Canada is. He’s now working on contract at CIBC in a technology support centre.

“We support internal banking software,” says Dolghii. “It’s like network admin, but first-level network admin.”

Tim Collins, CEO of Stafflink, says despite Canada’s multiculturalism and acceptance of different cultures, employers can be sticky on the issue of Canadian job experience. Sometimes job-seekers wind up so frustrated that give up and go home.

With the right skills and enough persistence, though, they can get their foot in the door. One of the key things to understand, says Collins, is while the technical ability might be present, there can be an adjustment phase to a new working culture.

“If they’re programming in Oracle in Russia or if they’re programming in Oracle in India they have the same technical skills,” he says. “The challenge is the methodologies that might be used here or the processes that are used here can differ. So, I think some of the employers, then, can be hesitant because there might be a little bit more ramp-up time or time to train those people.”

Of course, things are easier for people who have worked for large multinational companies, he adds.

Newcomers can also increase their chances by emphasizing their language skills – meaning both official languages, if possible.

Being bilingual can he “very helpful,” Collins says. In fact, part of the reason Dolghii got his job at CIBC, he says, was due to his knowledge of French. And somewhat to his surprise, he’s found that immigrants from diverse backgrounds have French skills.

“We even get people from India that have studied French in university.”

A useful address for new immigrants is the Comparative Education Service (CES) at the University of Toronto, which evaluates foreign academic qualifications, Collins adds.

Monica Chong, senior credentials assessor at the CES, says the organization’s assessments are “widely accepted” by employers. Over 40 years, they’ve amassed a wealth of information about foreign institutions, making the assessment process fairly quick. “There may be some instances where we may have to write to the appropriate authority in a certain country for some information,” she adds.

New immigrants come to the CES at different stages of their job search, she says. “We have clients who have had assessments prior to being called for an interview and we also have others who come to us after attending an interview at the point when they find out they need it.”

On his end, Collins will do investigations of his own. “I would say 10 to 15 per cent of our references are done overseas,” he says.

The journey from sending out a first job application to working in your field can be a grueling one. The gap between expectations and reality is often hard to bridge. Collins suggests that IT professionals considering a move to Canada get themselves prepared for the hurdles they may have to overcome while in their home countries.

“There needs to be better education for people on the process before they come.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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