For a couple of months, Riyaz Rauf, a skilled immigrant, stacked merchandise at a Walmart in Ajax, Ontario.
The marketing professional, who had previously worked in management roles for multinational companies in Sri Lanka, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, arrived in Canada through the Federal Skilled Worker immigration pathway in 2009.
The immigration category assesses applicants through a points system, which counts educational attainment, language abilities, and work experience in select occupations. Rauf’s professional background, including a post-graduate degree from the US, earned him enough points to immigrate under the marketing category.
Yet the qualifications that earned him points to leave the Middle East didn’t quite do the same to land him a job once he arrived in Canada.
Which is why, for a couple of months, he worked the night shift, filling shelves for customers to shop in the morning.
The underemployment of new immigrants is well documented. In a 2019 report, ‘Who is Succeeding in the Canadian Labour Market?’, World Education Services (WES) found that “a high proportion of respondents had to change work sectors post-migration.” While many would’ve preferred to continue working in the same sector as they did pre-migration, less than half of respondents said they did.
The findings also revealed that while nearly half of respondents were in management roles pre-migration, only about a quarter were in those positions after migrating to Canada.
Miu Chung Yan, a professor and the PhD program chair of the University of British Columbia’s School of Social Work, describes the selection of skilled worker class immigrants as ‘hyper-selective.’
“They have higher education compared to people in their home country, and they also have higher education compared to the general Canadian population,” he says. “But the challenges for this group are multifold.”
Among these challenges, says Yan, is the recognition of their qualifications, especially in highly regulated professions. There’s also the lack of Canadian work experience and a network, as well as language barriers.
“Although immigrants in the skilled labour class have to have a certain level of English or French to come to Canada—so most of them have no problems communicating—they have an accent,” he says. “So accent becomes a language barrier.”
“So your qualifications are not recognized, your work experiences are not recognized, you [have an] English accent, you don’t know anyone. You can imagine how difficult it will be to get a job,” he says.
And while bridging programs exist, as well as ways to get re-accredited professionally, these options are typically costly in time and money.
“Going back to school full-time to get those qualifications means [immigrants] have to give up time to get a job,” says Yan. “People say, ‘why don’t you go and upgrade yourself?’ Well, you have to feed a family. You just have to work.”
“That’s why some new immigrants will go and change their career, and start their own businesses at some point. That happens a lot of the time.”
“This is where I turned it around”
For Rauf, language wasn’t a barrier.
“However when I came to Canada, what I found about my skills especially in the field of marketing—and I don’t blame anyone—[is that] you have a better chance if you’re skilled in French and English. Because it goes on mass media, it has to appeal to all.”
So he made the most of his circumstances. “Once I came here, I needed to be employed. So my first job was for minimum pay, working at Walmart, and working the night shift.”
“It was a job that was paying me, and I liked it because I worked, say, from 11 o’clock in the night ’till about seven in the morning. And I go home, I sleep a few hours, and then I get up, I have enough time to get on the phone, get on the computer, apply for jobs—all that during business hours.”
Rauf worked at Walmart for about nine months. “Then I got my first break to work for TD Bank,” he says. “I was there as a teller for three years—and I left as a teller.”
“I thought, you know what? I have been in marketing for almost 22 years. Why don’t [I] go to a field where I can market myself? Realistically, as a brand? So I created my own brand,” he says. He decided to go into real estate.
Rauf spent a year and a half studying and taking the necessary licensure examinations. Today, he has been running his own business—marketing and selling houses—for six years.
“This is where I turned it around,” he says. “I used my skills for myself, to become self-employed.”
The value of community
Looking back, Rauf says connection to community was a big “success factor” for him. “Once I came here, I got in touch with as many social organizations as possible in the Sri Lankan community,” he says.
“I basically got involved with them, attending events and things like that. So I was known to them by the time I finished two years of being in Canada. I would know as many people as possible who lived in Ontario.”
This especially helped by the time he launched his business. Today about 40 per cent of his clientele are new immigrants, he says.
Eddy Ng, a management professor at Bucknell University, cites a study published in the International Migration journal that looks at the role of ethnic communities in the experiences of immigrants in Australia.
The 2019 study, ‘Determinants of Migrant Career Success: A Study of Recent Skilled Immigrants in Australia’, references other findings that suggest how ethnic networks help enhance the work outcomes of immigrants, enabling them to build businesses for themselves and their communities as a result.
“The same is probably true in Canada, because we have similar multiculturalism policies,” says Ng. “So socialization is really important; it helps you develop social capital so you can get into the labour market.”
Yan concurs. “Many studies have proven that the ethnic economy basically is a life saver for many new immigrants,” he says.
Yan points out that in spite of the challenges, immigrants are resilient. “Even with so many difficulties, so many barriers and challenges, many immigrants are still settling and adjusting alright,” he says.
“It’s a tough process, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not doable. You just have to bear with the reality that everything will be set back by a lot—and then you have to play catchup to go back.”
Rauf, for his part, is living proof.
“One thing that all my clients know is that in my first few years, maybe I didn’t have the best of jobs, but whatever job I did, I did well,” he says. “And I was working hard.”
“Not that negative attitude of ‘no, nothing is working for me.’ I always said things will happen. Let’s keep moving.”
Johna Baylon is a freelance journalist and writer based in Vancouver, B.C. She is also NCM's Local Journalism Initiative Reporter. She is drawn to stories around immigration, care work, and communities in the diaspora. Born in the Philippines, Baylon grew up in Hong Kong, where she covered food and design as a writer and editor prior to moving to Canada in 2019. Find her on Twitter @johnabaylon.