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New standards for foreign-trained engineers

New national standards to quickly recognize the credentials of foreign-trained engineers is being applauded by an Ontario professional licensing and regulatory body.

New national standards to quickly recognize the credentials of foreign-trained engineers is being applauded by an Ontario professional licensing and regulatory body.

Diane Finley, the federal Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, said under a new framework, which goes into effect Dec. 31, 2010, foreign-trained professionals will be told within one year of applying for a licence whether their credentials will be recognized.

The standards are being administered in two stages. Engineers are in the first batch, which includes architects, accountants, pharmacists, medical lab technicians, physiotherapists and registered nurses.

Kim Allen, CEO of the Professional Engineers Ontario, which has been lobbying for this standard to process foreign-trained professionals faster, now wants the federal government to promote all aspects of the entire licensing process to newcomers before they leave their home country.

Since 2003, the PEO has been doing its own version of pre-screening immigrants by encouraging them to get their university and professional documentation in order, as well education upgrading, before leaving for Canada.

“We're trying to give them as much of an upper hand as possible,” said Allen. 

The Pan-American Framework for the Assessment and Recognition of Foreign Qualifications is designed to keep skilled immigrants from falling through the cracks into so-called survival jobs while they wait years for their credentials to be recognized.

Allen said the biggest challenge remains getting senior levels of government to pass on the full knowledge of the licensing requirements to immigrants to ensure their qualifications are assessed and recognized in a timely fashion.

About 70 per cent of immigrant engineers achieve licensure without having to get additional education requirements.

“That's why we're trying to promote that before you come to Canada, you can take a course at your home university,” said Allen. 

The PEO also has an Engineering Intern Training Financial Credit Program to encourage engineering graduates and newcomers to Canada to apply for licensure.

Allen sent information packages to 267 Canadian embassies and consulates in an effort to drive foreign-trained engineers to the PEO's website so they can start the application process early.

“We don't have the outreach that the federal government has on who's coming. They know who's coming, we don't.”

How fast immigrants can be processed depends upon how quickly transcripts can be obtained from their home universities.

Allen said normally, a review committee of the PEO can assess an individual's academics within six weeks of documents arriving and can assess their educational gaps and verify their references.

He said it's difficult for employers to sort out for themselves an applicant's credentials from a foreign university.

“If we've assessed and verified them for a potential employer, they would be looked upon more favourably.”

In 2005, the PEO licensed more international engineering graduates than graduates of Canadian engineering programs. However, only 25 per cent applied for a licence – a statistic Allen calls a “huge problem.”

“The quicker you can them deployed into something where they're fully utilized their talent, they better it is for them and the economy.”

Allen said the Ontario market has a need for professionals engaged in infrastructure projects such as bridge, road, sewers and power lines, not so much in manufacturing engineering.

Gurmeet Bambrah, executive director for Council for Access to the Profession of Engineering (CAPE) says he's mystified by the government's focus on speeding up the process of recognizing foreign-trained engineers.

“I think the foreign credential recognition is the wrong place to go. The direction should be going toward employers.”

Bambrah agrees the most internationally-trained engineers have no problem getting their credentials recognized.

Only 15 per cent get the required one-year's experience working with a licensed engineer in the jurisdiction they want to work, prior to licensure.

Bambrah said that's because there aren't enough employers willing to take the risk of bring them on board.

“Even if you want to make it faster for their credentials to be recognized, you wouldn't be addressing the bottleneck,” said Bambrah. “You have to go to the employers. That's the one that no one's willing to tackle.”

She said only one in five qualified foreign engineers applies for licensing and it's hurting Canadian productivity compared to emerging countries like China and India. Many qualified people disappear into entry-level positions as technicians. 

Bambrah calls Canada's licensing system one of the most rigid in the world.

Bambrah, a Kenyan-born civic engineer, educated at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom, is one of only 18 women in the world to be a Fellow of the Institute of Civil Engineers for having made a significant contribution to the profession.

After she was accredited, one potential employer wanted to place her in an entry-level position despite her 30 years of professional experience.

“I would have lost all of that if I had to go back to entry level. It didn't make sense.”

Instead she founded CAPE, which recently launched an online database and search engine to match qualified engineers with employers.

Bambrah said it's a competency-driven tool where employers can fill in a job description and, within minutes, can view a list of qualified candidates resumes and portfolios.

Instead of devoting time and money on recognizing foreign credentials in a saturated market of engineers, the federal government and the regulatory bodies should concrete on finds ways to modernizing the profession to compete with other OECD countries.