Made-in-Quebec skills test helps foreign engineers prove their worth in new job market

Idir Merakeb has worked as an engineer all over the world, but after landing in Quebec in 2016, the only job he could find was at a call centre — until he took a skills test and landed a job in the Beauce.

With Quebec's shortage of high-tech skilled workers, industrial psychologist finds those hiding in plain sight

Idir Merakeb is a project manager and cost estimator at Estampro Inc., a company that makes and assembles metals parts for vehicles and machinery in the Beauce region. (Peter Tardif/CBC)

The relentless screech and hiss of heavy machinery slicing and moulding steel plates are signs that business is booming at Estampro Inc., a metal parts plant in Saint-Évariste-de-Forsyth, 130 kilometres south of Quebec City. 

Above the cacophony, Idir Merakeb, 34, belts out a laugh when another employee tells him a joke.

Merakeb is a project manager and cost estimator for the company that supplies parts for windmills, trucks and military vehicles.

The native of northern Algeria's Kabylie region feels right at home amid the noise and camaraderie, transplanted in the village of 540 tucked away in Quebec's southern Beauce.

"It's a little bit colder in winter," he admits.

For as long as he can remember, Merakeb has had his heart set on living in North America, to "live the American dream — and why not the Canadian-Québecois dream?" he asks.

Canada, he says, is "a country of freedom, safety and equal chances for everybody, regardless of their origins, religion, sexual orientation."

Diploma not recognized

However, when Merakeb first landed in the province in the fall of 2016, the life he had imagined for himself seemed a dream, indeed.

The only job he could land was at a Montreal call centre.

As a mechanical engineer who's worked in Russia, Jordan and Qatar for an international oil-field service company, not being able to work in his field in Quebec was difficult to accept.

"I was an engineer doing calculations and plans for wells in the middle of the sea," explained Merakeb, "and then all of a sudden, I'm in Montreal — it's a beautiful city, but I'm not working. I'm not using my skills."

You cannot just go and see an employer and say, 'Yes, I'm an engineer!'- Idir Merakeb

Merakeb said one of the stumbling blocks in his job hunt was his lack of contacts.

He said lots of companies depend on networking to find employees, but as a newcomer, he had no network.

As well, Quebec didn't recognize his engineering diploma and skills.

"You cannot just go and see an employer and say, 'Yes, I'm an engineer!,'" Merakeb said.

Test to find skilled workers

Merakeb's circumstances changed after he attended a job fair in Montreal and met François Lefort, an industrial psychologist and Estampro's human resources manager.

Lefort realized the work experience Merakeb had could be put to use in his region.
Industrial psychologist François Lefort created a test, called ERPS 360, which can determine people's aptitudes and skills to work in high tech and industrial manufacturing. (Peter Tardif/CBC)

"We need skilled workers in the Beauce," Lefort said.

In order to determine Merakeb's skill level, Lefort had him undergo a test he'd developed which determines people's aptitudes to work in highly computerized and roboticized factories.

Called ERPS 360, the test quantified Merakeb's skills. The results are recognized by companies in Quebec, even if his diploma is not.

Ultimately, that's what led him to his current job with Estampro.

67 job interviews

For Youcef Moulahcene, too, Lefort's ERPS 360 test proved to be a game changer.

Without it, he thinks it would have taken him years to find his job as project manager with MCM Integration, a Montreal firm that designs and manufactures charging stations for electric cars and urban telecom infrastructure.
Youcef Moulahcene managed to find a job as engineer after undergoing a skills and aptitudes test developed by a Quebec industrial psychologist. Before that, he could only find work as a telemarketer. (Submitted by Youcef Moulahcene)

Moulahcene, a university classmate of Merakeb's, worked in China and all over Europe before immigrating to Canada.

"I spent most of my time living on planes," he said. He wanted a job that would allow him to spend more time at home, and Canada beckoned.

"In the sixth grade, I had a test on world flags and I chose to draw the Canadian flag," he explained.

"It stayed with me."

However, after arriving in the summer of 2016, Moulahcene realized the new life he'd imagined for himself and his family might not come with the job he wanted.

"I went through 67 job interviews," he said — and that was only for jobs in his field.

He had countless more for work in the customer service sector, but until he reconnected with his old friend Merakeb in Montreal, accompanying him to the job fair where they crossed paths with Lefort, the only employment he could find was as a telemarketer.

Moulahcene said on top of having him undergo the ERPS 360 test, Lefort helped him fine-tune his résumé and prepared him for interviews.

The rest is history.

'We can build something great'

"Sometimes we look at a diploma coming from elsewhere than Canada or the States and say, 'They're probably not as strong as we are,'" Lefort said.

Lefort says often, newcomers end up having to go back to school to redo their engineering studies.

"That's why I offered them ERPS 360," he said, "to make sure that the future employer would know how skilled they are."

As the province grapples with a major labour shortage, Lefort says, the test could become a great tool for companies looking to hire any worker that may have fallen through the cracks — not just newcomers.

Merakeb says being recognized for his skills has made him feel empowered.

He thinks the government should make it easier for people to have their skills recognized, regardless of where they were born or where their diplomas are from.

"Let people show you that we can build something great," Merakeb said.

In the end, he said, that will help Quebec companies to compete — "not only in North America, but around the world."


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