When Erich Shih arrived in Canada two years ago, he found his first job in three weeks — as a gas station cashier in Milton. It was something of a shock since both he and his wife had been established teachers in their country of origin, the Philippines. Shih didn’t look down on the gas station work, but it wasn’t at all what he had planned when he applied to immigrate to Canada.

“I wasn’t trained to be a cashier,” says Shih, 33, who was attracted to Canada because of its social services, health and education systems. “I was living with my sister-in-law in Milton and I needed to start earning money. I didn’t know where to start.”

Shih’s dilemma is faced by many of the estimated 100,000 immigrants who arrive in the Toronto region each year. According to the 2006 census, 45.7 per cent of the region’s current population was born outside Canada, a percentage soon expected to exceed 50 percent. Many of the new arrivals will have been professionally trained abroad, but, like the famous stereotype of the taxi-cab-driving doctor, they face a range of obstacles in putting their skills to good use in the Canadian work force. In the last decade, though, there have been concerted efforts on the part of government, employers, regulatory bodies and community organizations to make sure internationally educated professionals get a fair shake at the jobs they’re qualified to do. As we come out of the economic downturn, some of it is finally taking root.

“I really think Toronto is at a tipping point,” says Claude Balthazar, director of HR excellence at the Human Resources Professionals Association. “We will be the test case for integrating internationally educated talent and everybody’s going to follow us.”

Professional accreditation is the most obvious barrier. Regulated professions like lawyers, architects, teachers and engineers rightfully require their practitioners to meet certain training standards. Although much international training meets those standards, making determinations can be labourious. In 2006, Ontario passed the Fair Access to Regulated Professions and Compulsory Trades Act, requiring registration practices to be “transparent, objective, impartial and fair.” Last year, the federal government also announced a framework that’s also intended to speed up the accreditation process.

In Shih’s case, he paid $100 to have his four-year Philippine bachelor’s degree recognized in Ontario, though the Ontario College of Teachers is asking him to take two additional courses before he is fully certified. (His wife’s master’s degree in education was immediately certified.)

“Is the system fair? I think that teaching in the Philippines is almost the same as here,” says Shih. “But they’re more concerned about the technical things, the difference between the two countries, when I think it would make more sense for teachers to just take a refresher course to make sure the skills are there.” His first professional job was, somewhat ironically, as a liaison coordinator for Ontario’s Second Career program that helps unemployed workers change careers, his next at a private college.

While making the accreditation process less painful is important, more than 80 per cent of skilled immigrants don’t work in regulated professions. Their obstacles are less about red tape than cross-cultural misperceptions. For their part, many new immigrants don’t have the best sense of what Canadian employers expect; Shih’s original resume, for example, was four or five pages, which Canadian eyes find long and off-putting.

“In the Philippines, you list all your jobs whether they are relevant or not,” says Shih. “Here, you talk about your achievements, try to quantify them. In the Philippines, your prospective employer would see that as boasting.”

Before his arrival in Canada, Shih had checked out the Canadian Immigration Integration Program which pointed him in the direction of COSTI, which offers programs to help immigrants improve their job-searching skills. He also found his way to the mentoring program offered by the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council. His mentor, who wasn’t in the same profession as Shih, spent time with him over the course of a few months, giving advice and offering him introductions to groups and individuals who might lead him to job prospects. It was a good substitution for the networks that Canadian-born job-seekers build just by growing up here.

“It sounds cliche, but having a cheerleader from Toronto really gave me a boost,” says Shih.

On the other side of the equation are Canadian employers, some of whom have the reputation of avoiding employees without Canadian experience, judging accents and cultural differences more harshly than other criteria. Last month, the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) held a conference to look at ways to make it easier for internationally educated HR professionals to get jobs here. A study released at the conference showed that while 94 per cent of internationally educated HR professionals want to work in that field in Canada, only 48 per cent of them end up doing so. It’s an interesting case study because, of course, HR professionals don’t just control their own field; they are the hiring gatekeepers at most businesses. HR attitudes dramatically affect whether a company is homogenous or diverse, says Balthazar.

It’s not just a case of being open-minded and fair, though. Companies that see the value of internationally educated professionals have started to actively reach out to them. CIBC, for example, has participated in TRIEC’s mentoring program and has initiated a slew of other projects intended to embrace foreign-trained talent. Its outreach consultant, who works with community partners to match resumes with appropriate roles, found jobs for 13 newcomers last year.

“If you become complacent, that’s when you fall behind,” says Matt Petersen, director of diversity strategies at CIBC. “We’re certainly not seeing a slowdown in the number of immigrants coming to Canada. Any organization that wants to be progressive, that wants to be seen as diverse needs to tap into that labour pool.”

This story is courtesy of Yonge Street Magazine.