CANOE Network

The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Welcoming immigrants to the workplace

By Sharon Aschaiek
Special to the Toronto Sun

The story of Reywen Bigirimana is one that, unfortunately, will resonate with many members of Ontario's immigrant population. The Burundi native, who'd trained as an engineer at Moscow State University and begun his career in Austria, immigrated to Canada with his wife in September, 1999. He was eager to put his skills and training to use to build his new life -- but he quickly learned it wouldn't be so easy.
Shawn Mintz, communications and marketing specialist at ACCES, says the government-funded agency provides complementary career and employment counselling services to more than 1,000 people a month. ACCES also hosts IT and Engineering job fairs like the one above, where more than 500 participants attended.


"I was 31 at the time, full of energy and thinking I would grab a job and nobody could stop me. I was sure that if I got a job, I would become a project manager within two or three years," recalls Bigirimana, now 36. "But it didn't work out that way."

To become licensed in Ontario, internationally-trained engineers must have four years of work experience behind them, with one year having been completed in Canada. But many employers are weary of hiring someone whose experience doesn't mesh with provincial codes. They also worry about the individual's language competencies, and whether they would fit in the workplace culture. Indeed, a December 2004 Public Policy Forum survey of more than 2,000 businesses confirms these are the top two barriers to foreign-trained workers.

The result is that 70% of newcomers to Canada have a hard time finding work in their field, and the same percentage of employers expect problems when hiring them.

Such was the case for Bigirimana, who bided his time by working in customer service, updating his skills through a construction management course at George Brown College, and writing a series of licensure exams through the industry's regulatory body, Professional Engineers Ontario.

But there still remained the requisite one year of Canadian experience to obtain, and Bigirimana was starting to lose hope that he'd ever work as an engineer again. Finally, in April 2004, he discovered Accessible Community Counselling and Employment Services (ACCES), and his life took a dramatic turn.

'Acted quickly'

"I was skeptical that ACCES could help me. But after meeting people there, things turned around for me. They organized a team to work with me and acted quickly," he says.

ACCES is a non-profit, government-funded GTA agency that provides complementary career and employment counselling services to more than 1,000 people a month. With locations in Toronto, Scarborough and Mississauga, its services cater to anyone seeking job-search assistance, especially newcomers.

Shawn Mintz, communications and marketing specialist at ACCES, is all too familiar with the Canadian-experience conundrum.

"It's the biggest barrier for foreign-trained professionals, but what companies should really be asking is, 'Do you have international experience?'" Mintz says.

"It makes sense. They bring years of experience, and new and innovative ideas from their home country that can help countries become competitive globally."

ACCES' broad range of services familiarizes clients to the particularities of the job market in their profession, teaches them up-to-date job- seeking techniques, and acclimatizes them to the Canadian workplace and labour trends. Services include assistance with resumes and employment letters, enhancing interview skills, tapping into the hidden job market, understanding professional licensing procedures, getting credentials assessed, and enhancing English-speaking abilities.

ACCES also hosts regular job fairs, speaker events and seminars; refers clients to specific job openings; and provides one-on-one assistance with calling and meeting employers. Clients can follow leads on job boards and take advantage of on-site computers, Internet access, printers and a well-stocked resource centre to enhance their job search.

"We're very focused on helping someone find a job in their field so they're not going into survival jobs, such as cab drivers or gas attendants, where they're not using their skills to their potential," Mintz says.

When Bigirimana first connected with ACCES, he was working as an Air Miles travel agent. ACCES helped him obtain a few interviews with engineering employers, and eventually he was hired as a construction engineer by Aker Kvaerner, a leading global provider of engineering and construction services with offices and projects worldwide.

"The way ACCES works is unbelievable -- they actually connect you to employers," Bigirimana says. "I'm very happy. It's not even a matter of salary. Even if they gave me the same salary or less than at Air Miles, I would have accepted the offer just to get the chance to get back into my field."

For more information on ACCES, visit

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