Hidden talent

Helping qualified immigrants find work

REZA Karami can tell you everything you want to know about volleyball, field hockey or soccer, but when it comes to Canada's unofficial national sport of ice hockey, he doesn't know his hooking from his high-sticking.

Twenty years ago, Karami was making his living as a professional volleyball player in Iran. He went on to earn a master's degree in physical education and sports science, taught at the university level, coached elite volleyball teams and worked as a referee for a number of sports clubs.

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About 15 months ago, the 44 year old left behind the gyms and playing fields of his hometown in central Iran and moved to the North Shore with the hope of a better life. But so far, he's had no chance to put his education or sports training to use.

"I'd like to get a job that's related to my previous experience," Karami says, "but here, you know, finding a job in volleyball is hard because the favourite sport here is hockey."

More so than culture shock, Karami has been feeling the sting of "dollar shock." For the price of a bus ticket here, he says he could take a taxi in Iran. And the drop-in fee to play volleyball at the local recreation centres simply isn't in his budget. He quickly burned through his savings and took a job as a sales associate at Winners to make ends meet.

Karami expected it would be difficult to find sports-related work in Canada, but he had hoped to have found something by now.

"Here, you need Canadian experience, but it's hard for newcomers," he says. "I didn't bring any Canadian experience with me."

To get help finding a job better suited to his background, Karami turned to the Skills Connect for Immigrants Program, an employment service delivered on the North Shore by MOSAIC.

Through the program, Karami received some funding and is taking courses that will lead to his certification as a personal trainer. He hopes this will open the door for him to work, at least part-time, as a recreational sports or fitness instructor.

In the meantime, he is familiarizing himself with sport-specific language, having just recently added the word "treadmill" to his vocabulary.

"I know the equipment," he says, "but I don't know what they're called in English."

. . .

Karami is one of many skilled newcomers to Canada who are either unemployed or employed outside their field of expertise. Offered throughout the Lower Mainland, Skills Connect is one program that is trying to help qualified immigrants find employment in British Columbia. It is geared toward permanent residents who have been in Canada less than five years and speak intermediate-level English. Services are funded by the Ministry of Regional Economic and Skills Development and additional financial support is available for skill upgrading activities.

Skills Connect manager Anna Novak sees new immigrants facing the same job-search roadblocks time and again.

"They don't know what to do, they don't know how to start their job search," she says. "Lots of times when we have clients coming from the Middle East or even Eastern European countries, they have never looked for work before so they don't really know what to do, or how it's done in Canada."

Counsellors work one-on-one with clients to provide the resources, support and know-how needed to reach their career goals. Immigrants can get help with resumé writing, job interview skills, certification and licensing, applying to regulatory bodies and professional associations and some academic upgrading.

Another major roadblock is English, or lack thereof, since many professional bodies require new hires to meet a minimum English language proficiency. MOSAIC at North Shore Multicultural Society is one of many places where newcomers can study English.

The province predicts close to one million job openings by 2018, and only half of those will be filled by the current population. Novak says incorporating skilled newcomers into the workforce is essential to the economic health of the province and Canada.

"This country is based on immigration," Novak says. "We are actually talking as a nation here about how to fill the positions that are becoming available with new workers, and the population is not growing fast enough so immigration is extremely important."

She says it is crucial not only to attract skilled workers to Canada, but to follow-up upon their arrival.

"Attracting skilled immigrants is not enough because they come to the country and there is no support. So Skills Connect is one of the extremely good programs for these newcomers so they can get supported from the get go."

Even with many years of foreign experience, Novak admits it can be difficult for new residents to land that all-important first Canadian job.

"It sometimes feels like a catch-22 because they cannot get a job because they don't have any local experience, and they cannot get the experience because nobody will hire them."

. . .

Hamed Afshari and his wife have been living off their savings since they moved to North Vancouver from Tehran, Iran almost two years ago. Both of them were doctors in Tehran and both are taking the many necessary steps to qualify as doctors in Canada.

"The process of finding a job for physicians is really clear, but it's really tough," says Afshari, who has 10 years of experience as a general practitioner.

Foreign-trained doctors must take a series of exams, including the International Medical Graduate (IMG) test, which Afshari has passed, and an English language exam, which he has failed twice. After passing all the necessary evaluations, he will have to compete to secure a residency in order to practise family medicine in B.C.

Afshari expects it will be another couple of years before he is working as a doctor in Canada, but for now he is focusing on the positives of his new home.

"For me, the most important thing is the multiculturalism here," he says. "As an immigrant you are accepted, you don't feel yourself like a horrible alien or something like that."

"I love my country, I love my family," he adds, "but it's about a better life."

Afshari is also a Skills Connect client and says the program has opened his eyes to significant cultural differences when it comes to job searching in Canada. A resumé, he says, is not particularly important in Iran. Whereas modesty is a virtue in his home country, Afshari is learning to talk himself up in preparation for Canadian job interviews.

When he finally does start practising medicine again, he expects the job will be different from what he is used to. In Iran, he says, there is no referral system, meaning anyone can make an appointment directly with a specialist. In Canada, however, family physicians have a wider range of health-care responsibilities.

. . .

The sole Skills Connect employment counsellor on the North Shore, Candice So, aims to take on 10 new clients per month. Of the approximately 120 clients she sees each year, a little more than half are women.

So explains the Skills Connect program is divided into two streams: one for health professionals, and another for general employment, which covers workers with a background in finance, IT, education and other industries. The general stream takes 12 months to complete, while the health stream takes about 18 months due to the sometimes lengthy process of earning professional accreditation.

On the North Shore, So says the majority of clients come from Iran and the Philippines, but she has worked with people from all over the world.

About 80 per cent of the clients who go through the general employment program end up finding a job related to their previous experience. The success rate is lower for the health stream, at about 55 per cent.

Employment manager at MOSAIC, Dennis Tsang, says more and more immigrants are accessing job-finding services on the North Shore. When Skills Connect launched in 2006, an employment counsellor commuted to North Vancouver from the Vancouver branch one day per week.

"Due to the high demand of the North Shore clientele, it was added to two days a week a year down the road," he says. Today, an employment counsellor works four days a week.

"I really see there is this great need for government to provide more service to these clients to help them to settle," says Tsang. "If these people cannot find work in their new country called home, what are they going to say about Canada?" . . .

For Fia Basoeki, finding meaningful work in Canada came relatively quickly. She was hired to work with children as a substitute staff member at North Shore Neighbourhood House in November, just four months after she arrived in Canada from Indonesia with her husband and young daughter.

"After living in Indonesia for 12 years, I decided I wanted to have a fresh change," she says.

Basoeki was born in Indonesia, grew up in Singapore and went to school in Australia before returning to her birth country. She earned her bachelor's degree in marketing and finance and worked for foreign banks for five years. When her daughter was born, she took a Montessori training course, which inspired her to make a dramatic career change.

"That sort of sparked my interest in working with children, and I've been working with children for the past 10 years," says the 37-year-old.

Shortly after she arrived on the North Shore, she saw a poster for the Skills Connect program at a local library branch.

"I knew what I wanted to do, but I just needed some direction," she says.

Through the service, Basoeki learned that obtaining a professional licence could give her a competitive edge. So, on top of her job at NSNH, she is also studying early childhood education at Capilano University.

Basoeki also received some tips on resumé building and discovered Canadian job seekers don't divulge the same personal details that job seekers in many Asian countries do, such as age, gender and often a photograph.

Although she has already landed a position in her field of choice, Basoeki will continue to check in with her employment counsellor to provide regular updates.

Despite the continuing demand for Skills Connect, the future of the program is uncertain. The provincial government announced that Skills Connect would be ending March 31, 2014 and a new program, which is anticipated to follow Skills Connect, will be funded by the federal government.

"At the moment, we really don't know what's going to happen," Novak says. But she assures clients they will still be able to use the service as usual until next year.

"We are expecting that, by the end of this year, probably sometime in fall, we will learn a little bit more what are the intentions for the program," she says.

Skills Connect holds information sessions the last Tuesday of every month at 205-123 East 15th St., North Vancouver. For more information visit skillsconnect. ca.


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