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Ukrainians welcomed in workplace, but still finding jobs below their qualifications

Employers often fail to recognize education and work experience from outside of Canada
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Viacheslav Samsonenko, a Ukrainian newcomer who fled his home country in May, poses in Saanichiton, B.C., on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Viacheslav Samsonenko would need at least two years of experience to work as a professional engineer in Canada.

So, like many newcomers, he signed up for a job below his qualifications and is working hard to move up.

Samsonenko, who moved to Canada last May after fleeing the war in Ukraine, knew two decades of work experience in the field wouldn’t be relevant in Canada.

But he managed to find work in the same industry within a month of arriving in Canada.

“I’m glad to be here in Canada (and) do my favourite work,” said Samsonenko, who has been working as an estimator for a British Columbia-based construction company.

He said it wasn’t hard finding a job in his preferred industry but it will be a while before he becomes a professional civil engineer in Canada — requiring him to write a series of tests and continue gaining experience.

Samsonenko’s situation isn’t unique. People working in immigration say newcomers often struggle to land meaningful jobs that are in line with their qualifications or previous work experience.

“It boils down to the lack of Canadian experience (for many employers),” said Darrel Pinto, employment director at Jumpstart Refugee Talent, a refugee-led non-profit organization helping newcomers find relevant jobs.

Newcomers often feel they get screened out of opportunities, he said. The lack of soft skills and cultural integration are among the biggest problems when it comes to employers accepting newcomers into professions, he added.

The equivalency of education credentials is another barrier that employers need help understanding.

Pinto said employers fail to recognize that some foreign universities “far exceed the quality of graduates than our own Canadian universities.”

“Many newcomers tell me that the United States is far more open and welcoming to their differences compared to the Canadian marketplace, which is a little bit more closed,” he said.

Viktoriia Kulakovska moved to New Brunswick last August after fleeing the war that reached her hometown in Odesa, about 475 kilometres south of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

Kulakovska and her husband, both qualified as lawyers, were running their legal firm in Ukraine. Soon enough, she found out her law degree was not recognized in Canada. Instead, she landed a finance job through networking.

She said her husband has been going to English classes in Fredericton and is also preparing for a career shift. He is considering becoming a taxi or truck driver.

She said she sees a lot of opportunities to try new things in Canada, but obtaining another law degree might not be feasible for her and her husband.

And that is the case for many immigrants to Canada.

A report this week from the Royal Bank of Canada indicates that despite immigrants being younger and better educated, they have a harder time than Canadians finding jobs that match their qualifications.

However, Pinto said the experience of Ukrainians coming to Canada after the Russian invasion last year is different from other waves of refugees.

The government responded innovatively to the crisis in eastern Europe, said Pinto.

“That made it a softer landing for them when they arrived in Canada.”

Faster timelines to process open work permits under a special program, faster resettlement services and increased assistance in landing jobs in the community worked well for the Ukrainian newcomers, which he said could also become a template for future newcomers from other countries.

Patrick MacKenzie, CEO of the non-profit Immigration Employment Council of B.C., agreed.

MacKenzie recalled a recent case when a Ukrainian landed a job at a Vancouver bakery before even coming to Canada. “He just needs to get here now.”

“Ukrainians are being welcomed into the workplace, and employers are finding that they’re contributing really quickly,” he said, adding the higher level of Canadians’ awareness about the war in Ukraine could also play a role.

“I hope employers will take that lesson and apply it more broadly to all newcomers to Canada so that we can make headway on the underemployment that we see so many immigrants face,” he said.

Since March 2022, the Canadian government has received more than 860,000 applications from Ukraine, and close to 170,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Canada, the government site shows.

But language continues to be the biggest barrier, particularly for professional jobs, said Kael Campbell of Victoria, B.C.-based Red Seal Recruitment Solutions.

Some recruiters, however, are starting to challenge the Canadian experience narrative, he said.

“There’s either work experience or there’s not,” Campbell said.

With the latest Ukrainian wave, Campbell said recruiters are working to educate Canadian employers about the opportunity the newcomers are bringing to the table.

“(We’re) encouraging employers to be open to hiring Ukrainians and to sharing the knowledge that they have.”

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Ritika Dubey, The Canadian Press

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