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The Catch-22 of Canadian Work Experience

A Canadian flag painted on a locked gate symbolizing the struggles of Canadian citizenship and immigration

by Nicolette Mueller, Vice President, Legal and Risk Management, Adecco Canada

We hear it all the time. In the laundry list of candidate recruitment qualifications clients give us, often one of them is “Canadian work experience”. Recently, however, the Ontario Human Rights Commission has weighed in, hoping to shift this mindset.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission is a government agency responsible for developing public policy on human rights. It’s guided by the Human Rights Code, which makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against employees on a number of grounds including race, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, and country of origin (to name a few).

The Commission recently launched the Policy on Removing the “Canadian Experience” Barrier, which states that it is discriminatory for employers to require candidates to have Canadian work experience in all but the most exceptional circumstances.

For years now the headlines and the statistics have been hard to ignore.  Almost half of Toronto’s population is from outside of Canada, higher than any other major city, including New York, Miami, and Sydney. As Canadians, we welcome the influx for a host of reasons, but from an economic perspective, the steady stream of newcomers helps to offset the shrinking labour pool that retirees are leaving behind. Yet for all our waving of the welcome banner, it’s the recent immigrant population that is being relegated to lower skilled jobs – and the Commission has determined that it’s not for a lack of skills or education. A number of studies have concluded that the requirement for Canadian work experience is a significant barrier to higher level jobs.

This mindset has put recent immigrants in a paradoxical position: they can’t get a job without Canadian work experience, and they can’t get Canadian work experience without a job. And it doesn’t help that several regulatory bodies (which license and govern professions like engineers, accountants, lawyers, and healthcare professionals) have similar Canadian work experience requirements surrounding accreditation. But with the help of Ontario’s Office of the Fairness Commissioner, whose mandate is to ensure that professional licensing practices are fair and equitable, even this institutional attitude is changing (progress since its inception in 2007 is outlined in its most recent Annual Report).

I attended the Commission’s launch of the Policy on Removing the “Canadian Experience” Barrier this past July. I was surprised to hear a recent well-qualified immigrant who had previously worked in several countries say that he’d never before encountered this requirement for local work experience. In many other developed countries, foreign experience is prized rather than devalued. For some reason it’s become normalized for Canadian employers to think that our way of doing business is so unique that foreign born, trained, and experienced candidates couldn’t possibly fulfill the functions of our jobs.

It’s time we rethink our standard requirements and re-evaluate what a candidate really needs to perform a given job. Here are some of the Commission’s suggested best practices:

  • Use competency-based methods to assess an applicant’s skill and ability to do the job.
  • Consider all work experience, regardless of where it was obtained.
  • Frame job qualifications or criteria in terms of competencies and job-related knowledge and skills.
  • Review job requirements and descriptions, recruitment/hiring practices, and accreditation criteria to make sure these aren’t barriers for newcomer applicants.
  • If you’re unsure of a candidate’s ability to do the job, give him or her the opportunity to prove his or her qualifications through an paid internship, short contract, or through a probationary period (this would apply to any applicant).
  • Often employers requiring Canadian work experience are couching their preference for candidates with the ‘right fit’ for the work culture of their organization, but if this is a concern, consider supplying newcomers with information about workplace norms and expectations and opportunities within the organization.

SourceContent for this article is drawn from the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Policy on Removing the “Canadian Experience” Barrier.

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