Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Recognizing foreign credentials

One would think that everything is rosy and promising for immigrants to come and work in Canada. It is almost as good as true if one relies on government reports and documents alone. But the reality is starkly the opposite.

We still hear stories of well-educated immigrants driving taxis, working as hospital orderlies, or temping as building maintenance and factory workers. Some of them even have graduate and post-graduate degrees under their belts, but nobody told them they’re not exactly the ones Canada needs at present.

Because Canada immigration has placed too much weight on educational qualifications without effectively matching them with the real job demands in the market, a huge backlog of applicants for permanent residence has been created. This situation has considerably lengthened processing timelines to almost five years for each applicant.

As a stop-gap measure, Canadian employers resorted to hiring temporary foreign workers to fill in their immediate labour requirements, compounding the problem of Canada’s immigration bureaucrats who now have to confront an influx of temporary foreign workers who are vulnerable to employer abuse and deplorable working conditions.

In the most recent audit of the current practices of Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC), Canada’s Auditor General concluded that such practices “do not ensure that foreign worker programs are delivered efficiently and effectively.” This is a strong indictment of the current government’s way of handling the selection and hiring of foreign-trained workers.

Just recently, the federal government of Canada as well as the provinces have unveiled a major agreement that would help foreign-trained professionals get their credentials recognized in Canada.

But how does Canada recognize the foreign credentials of its immigrants?

The recognition of foreign credentials involves verifying that the education and job experience obtained by an immigration applicant in another country (in applicant’s country of origin in most cases) are equal to the standards established for Canadian professionals.

For regulated occupations, recognition of credentials is mainly a provincial responsibility that has been delegated in legislation to regulatory bodies. About one in five jobs is regulated, including teachers, nurses, physicians, engineers and electricians. There are over 400 regulatory bodies in Canada and no uniform or national standards for recognition of foreign credentials. While much of the responsibility for professional accreditation lies with the provinces, each province and their regulatory bodies have different standards. Thus, recognition of foreign credentials varies from province to province and from occupation to occupation.

Most occupations in Canada are non-regulated. For this type of jobs, assessment and recognition of credentials are left to the employer. Employers are therefore responsible for assessing the work experience and skills of prospective workers based on what their company requires. They decide if overseas credentials are equivalent to Canadian credentials required for each job. Employers often have different standards and in most cases lack the necessary tools to help them make an objective evaluation of credentials.

Even with the creation of a Foreign Credential Referral Office (FCRO) in 2007, all that the government has accomplished is to provide information, path-finding and referral services at 320 Service Canada Centres. Immigrants are left with the burden of identifying which regulatory body must review their credentials, or are left to the mercy of private employers to determine if their skills measure up to Canadian standards.

Recognizing the need for foreign credential recognition, the government established a Foreign Credential Recognition (FCR) Program which infused additional funding to several agencies and independent organizations with the hope that this would strengthen the process of recognition of foreign credentials in both regulated and non-regulated occupations.

So far, the FCR Program has made investments in 19 out of the top 45 occupations identified by skilled immigrants entering Canada. This does not mean, however, that foreign credentials have now been recognized at least in some jobs. It only meant that some standards for assessment and recognition have been established. In other words, equivalency of foreign credentials to Canadian standards has not yet been achieved even in the 19 jobs so far identified.

To date, most of the funding made available through the FCR Program went to HRSDC- approved projects that focused more on identifying programs and services available in colleges or institutes that prepare immigrant students to integrate into the labour force, the creation of Internet information portal that provides information about registration and licensing of professionals in the health-care system and occupational therapy, and the holding of regional dialogues involving sector councils, employers and immigrant-serving agencies that focus on partnerships and information. It has also focused on improving the accessibility of materials used by internationally-educated medical laboratory technologists.

In short, the FCR Program is still at a stage where it is developing a database for its program of assessing and recognizing foreign credentials. Yet, most of the services and programs funded by HRSDC are already available from various government and nongovernmental agencies. This unnecessary duplication of services and programs is not only unjustifiable, it is also a waste of government funds.

For example, the FCR Program has invested over $4.5 million with the Association of Canadian Community Colleges to deliver overseas information services with the objective of helping skilled immigrants prepare for their integration in the Canadian labour market while their applications are being processed in their country of origin. Three pilot offices have been established in China, India and the Philippines.

But the kind of information available under this program consists simply of what Canadian colleges and institutes can offer prospective immigrants on how to upgrade their qualifications and skills to satisfy Canadian standards. This information is also already available on the Internet: all that is needed is to identify the proper links and publish them through the websites of Canadian consular offices abroad. Thus, there is no need to spend millions of dollars just to deliver this information.

Even the new FCR programs—worth more than $47 million—are all aimed at establishing a database for foreign degree programs that will be used by provincial regulatory bodies in their assessment of foreign credentials. Why not develop a set of national standards to be used in the assessment and recognition of foreign credentials instead?

In the European Union, members have signed on to the Lisbon Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region which provides a procedural and methodological framework in assessing transnational educational qualifications. This seems to be lacking in Canada, or even in the United States, where experience and the candidate’s qualifications are what the employers need to base their hiring decision on.

Nothing will attract newcomers more than the knowledge that their legitimate credentials will allow them to explore economic opportunities across Canada.

Does Canada want to have access to a steady stream of well-educated, well-qualified and trained immigrants? Then it should offer services beyond providing basic information to immigrants who now are left to themselves in navigating the chaotic maze of foreign credentials recognition or at the mercy of employers who are not even equipped to make intelligent decisions regarding their qualifications.

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