Nova Scotia

New immigrants in N.S. have employment challenges, opportunities

Many new Canadians have to deal with previous work experience in their home country being discounted by Canadian employers.

'I have all this stuff on my resumé and then I came here and every day I kept having to drop the standards'

Ken Oguzie said his early days of job hunting in Nova Scotia was a "roller-coaster" but now he is the CEO of his own company — Africa Canada Trade and Investment Venture. (M4 Media)

When Ken Oguzie arrived in Nova Scotia in 2014, he was faced with the challenge of convincing prospective employers that his previous work experience counted for something. 

Like many new Canadians in Nova Scotia, Oguzie had a wealth of work and life experience. Born in Nigeria, he lived in Malaysia, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States before deciding to move to Nova Scotia with his family. 

He was very well qualified academically, with a bachelor's degree in business management from a U.K. university and a masters degree in social policy and development from the London School of Economics.

But even with this background, Oguzie said his early job-hunting experience was like a "roller-coaster."

'It didn't mean a lot'

"It was kind of challenging because ... you have all of these things, education and experience," he said, "and then you come in here and it didn't mean a lot.

"I have all this stuff on my resumé and then I came here and every day I kept having to drop the standards."

He was eventually hired by Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia in a role that allowed him to coach other new immigrants on the ins and outs of job hunting in the province.   

Oguzie described the opportunity to help others at ISANS as one of the "most fulfilling jobs" he's had. He said having gone through the experience himself helped him to relate to clients and have a "direct impact."

Today, he is a diversity consultant and CEO of Africa Canada Trade and Investment Venture, which promotes trade between Canada and West Africa.

Oguzie's experience will have a familiar ring for many.

Ann Divine, a Guyana-born personal development consultant, said employers need to look at the skills and qualifications of new immigrants and see what they "can bring to the table." (David Divine Jr. )

Ann Divine was born in Guyana, raised in England, and moved to Canada in 2004. 

She runs Ashanti Leadership — a company that works with organizations on professional development and increasing diversity.

Divine said there was no consideration given for her qualifications or work history when she arrived in Canada. She said she had to start at the bottom and ended up teaching English to other immigrant women.

"Their experiences were no different from mine because they were highly educated women and they couldn't find jobs," she said.

Overcoming bias

She said one of the problems she encountered was that employers didn't trust foreign qualifications. She said another issue in Nova Scotia was that "many individuals were not used to seeing Black and brown people in a high-profile position."

The situation is improving, Divine said, but there is always a challenge of overcoming unconscious, and sometimes overt, bias in organizations.

She believes the key is in approaching job applicants with an open-minded approach and having a conversation with them to see what is below the surface and "what they can bring to the table."

"Change is happening gradually," she said, "but we need to move a little faster if we're going to grow our economy in the way that we want it to grow and to be more inclusive, particularly of those individuals who are not from Nova Scotia."

The problem of obtaining employment even affects new immigrants who are allowed express entry into Canada under the Federal Skilled Workers program, according to Halifax-based immigration lawyer Lee Cohen.

Lee Cohen is a Halifax-based immigration lawyer. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

He said he has clients who successfully immigrated to Canada because they qualified under the "occupations-in-demand category" and were shocked to discover they had difficulty finding employment.

"The truth of the matter is it doesn't make sense. And you have to come up with an answer. Well, one of the possible answers is —  wrong last name, wrong accent."

Cohen said many professionals such as doctors, nurses, engineers and pharmacists get frustrated that their qualifications are not recognized in Canada.

'Closed-shop syndrome'

Calling it a "closed-shop syndrome," Cohen said many immigrants can't get past the regulatory bodies that govern their profession in Canada.

He said immigrants are reluctant to spend five to 10 years going back to school to learn a profession that they already know. 

"I think it is very paternalistic," Cohen said. "It's also condescending. I also think there's bigotry and discrimination associated with this as well."

Nabiha Atallah of ISANS said workplace culture is important, but a diversity of views in the workplace can lead to better outcomes for companies. (Nabiha Atallah)

Nabiha Atallah is an adviser for strategic initiatives at ISANS and has been working with the organization for 25 years.

Atallah said the organization offers programs to help immigrants adjust to workplace culture in Canada and also works with employers to make them aware of cultural differences.

One of the programs offered gives job seekers a six-week unpaid job placement in an area where they want to work, and allows them a chance to get Canadian work experience and a job reference.

"Often the employer is very happily surprised by the ability of the immigrant," she said, "And in many cases they have actually offered jobs, although that's not part of the program."

Atallah said she has seen a change over the years and an increasing "openness" on the part of employers to embrace the diversity that hiring an immigrant can bring to the workplace.

"I think that we are realizing and we are seeing more and more the wonderful contributions that immigrants make to our community," she said. "And it's not totally new.

"The numbers are new, but we've had immigrants contributing to Nova Scotia for many years."

Strategic job hunting

Oguzie offered some practical advice for new immigrants when it comes to job hunting.

He said the immigrant journey is often "a step backwards to get to move three steps forward" and he urges job seekers to be strategic in their approach to finding employment. 

If someone can't get a job at the level they were used to in their previous country, he said, they should think carefully about what job they take in order to pay the bills. 

Drawing an example of someone with 10 years of experience in investment banking, Oguzie said it is better to take a temporary job in retail banking rather than in a completely different area like a call centre or Walmart — even if it pays a little less.

"That way is easier for you to find ways, when the right investment manager job, which is what you used to do, comes along," he said, "it's easier for you to align your resumé."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.



Vernon Ramesar


Vernon Ramesar is a reporter and video and radio journalist originally based in Trinidad. He now lives in Halifax.