Bridging the gap between labour shortages and newcomers’ struggles in accessing the job market

While there are complex barriers for newcomers to get jobs, practitioners on the ground have practical recommendations for removing them, writes Yusra Qadir, of the Mothers Matter Centre.

While there are complex barriers for newcomers to get jobs, practitioners on the ground have practical recommendations for removing them, writes Yusra Qadir, of the Mothers Matter Centre.

“We work with so many newcomer women who have education and experience from back home. Some were teachers, some worked in childcare or healthcare, but there is no recognition here; you have to start from zero. Nobody is willing to give you a job. What will people do? They will just have to take any job they find because they have rent to pay and kids to feed.” I recalled Seema’s words as I read recent news headlines about Ontario struggling to deal with a shortage of early childhood education (ECE) workers. Given what I heard from Seema and what we continue to hear from various partner organizations across Canada about newcomers’ struggles with unemployment and underemployment, the complex workforce shortage problem for various sectors seems like a missing bridge. In my work, we celebrate finding “missing bridges,” as this recognition is the first step toward building bridges.

Seema is a part-time home visitor working in the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) program at the Working Women Community Centre in Toronto. The HIPPY program is licensed by the Mothers Matter Centre. It employs roughly 130 home visitors through 34 partner service-delivery organizations serving more than 1,500 newcomer mothers from more than 60 countries across 30 cities in Canada annually. Funded predominantly by Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, the program creates employment for newcomer women as home visitors to build the confidence and community connections of other isolated newcomer mothers in their communities and connect them to essential services. The home visitors are engaged in a work–learn model during their employment tenure of two to three years. After that, they move on to other jobs, and existing mothers in the program are recruited as home visitors, allowing them to gain Canadian experience and propel them forward in accessing the job market.

More than 1.3 million new immigrants settled permanently in Canada from 2016 to 2021 – the highest number of recent immigrants recorded in a Canadian census. More than 400,000 newcomers have arrived each year since.

I spoke to various HIPPY partner staff, including newcomer women, and learned that while there are complex barriers for newcomers to get jobs, the practitioners on the ground have practical recommendations for removing them:

1. Build bridges between job seekers and employers and between employment services and labour market needs.

Settlement organizations have limited connections with employers and mostly focus on providing generic soft skills (creating a CV, giving an interview, etc.). As a result, accessing employment services and even securing employment is not the desired outcome if newcomers are underemployed or have to start anew in a different field of work. Employment services without targeted skill-building and work-placement experience based on labour-market needs have limited effectiveness.

Steve Reynolds, executive director of Regional Connections, who leads settlement service provision to newcomers in small centres and rural communities in Manitoba, says that although there are various employment programs, targeted measures to ensure that the right job-seeker reaches the right employer are few and far between. “Newcomers need jobs, and they need them fast,” he says. “They do not have the luxury of time to wait to get a job that matches their skill level or have the resources to sustain themselves and their families through the tedious journey of credential recognition.”

Employment programs that offer participants income support and a balance of skill-building and hands-on work experience are successful in helping participants gain jobs.

Steve Reynolds, Regional Connections

“In our experience, employment programs that offer participants income support and a balance of skill-building and hands-on work experience are successful in helping participants gain jobs,” Reynolds says. “This is because income support takes the pressure of putting food on the table off the participants and allows them to focus on the program. Work placement helps newcomers build networks with colleagues and peers that can help leverage other jobs. Our Gateway to Work Experience for Newcomers is an example of such a program, and a recent cohort had an 80% employment rate for participants.”

2. Enhance employer awareness and address expectations regarding “Canadian experience,” and offer flexible employment options for women, especially mothers.

While a major rationale for bringing in immigrants has been to fill jobs and support the economy, newcomers say that little to no value is placed on having international experience. “You really have to start from zero,” says Johana, a former client and now a home visitor in the HIPPY program at DIVERSEcity, in Surrey, BC. “As a woman and as a mother, it is even more difficult because you have to settle yourself as well as your children. You need a lot of support for that – but there is no support or community. You have to build that yourself too. Finding a job is not easy because finding childcare is not easy. Everyone asks for Canadian experience – how can I get it if nobody will give me a job?”

Everyone asks for Canadian experience – how can I get it if nobody will give me a job?

Johana, DIVERSEcity HIPPY program

“My home visitor was Rosita (Rosa), who showed me how to help my daughter prepare for school,” Johana says. “I learnt a lot of English by engaging my children in the HIPPY activities. She was there encouraging me when nobody else was. Slowly, I gained confidence and even made friends. Now, I am a home visitor. My job is helping me gain Canadian experience. As I prepare for the next steps in my career, it makes me so happy that when I move, another mother from the program will take my place, and it will help her build herself up.”

Rosa has now transitioned from being a home visitor into a management position at DIVERSEcity. She manages a team of eight home visitors who serve more than 100 newcomer families.

In our experience, interventions work only when they truly centre clients and allow flexibility to meet emerging client needs. The HIPPY program works because it provides clients with holistic support, including transport, childcare, and referrals to other services. It also allows newcomer women employees (the home visitors) flexible part-time work options that they can balance alongside their domestic and caregiving responsibilities.

3. Take stock of the changing context and emerging needs and invest in innovative approaches.

“I have been working in the early-learning and childcare sector for 30-plus years, with 12 of those working with the Ministry of Education as an early-learning and childcare program consultant,” says Leanne May, director of childcare services at Saskatoon Open Door Society. “There was an expectation that licensed childcare facilities work towards ‘high quality’ childcare, and this included the need for educators to model proper English so the children can learn it accurately. I supported that for many years, and I admit that it bothered me when an educator would use the wrong pronoun when talking to, or about, a child.”

“But working in a settlement organization has given me a new perspective,” May says. “There are now so many immigrants in Saskatchewan, and this is reflected in current childcare centres’ enrolments. These children would benefit from being around people that look like them or speak their language. I have seen the impact when a newcomer family starts their journey in our childcare system and an educator shares the same language and culture. There is an instant bond and a sense of belonging. I also know that those who are passionate about working with young children but have limited language will improve their language skills by working with families.” 

If we are able to create flexibility and incorporate mentoring for on-job language learning as part of the ECE jobs, we could address the ECE worker shortage and support meaningful employment for newcomer women.

Leanne May, Saskatoon Open Door Society

“If we are able to create flexibility and incorporate mentoring for on-job language learning as part of the ECE jobs,” May adds, “we could address the ECE worker shortage as well as support meaningful employment for newcomer women. This is not conventional, but times and needs have changed – so should our approaches.”

Newcomers bring diverse skills and experiences. We need to find ways to leverage them and invest in bridging any gaps they have in skills or language abilities alongside harnessing their skills. This allows them to reach their fullest potential, addresses job market shortages, and supports economic growth in the “now.”

Marie-Grace Nirere, program coordinator at Service d’accueil et d’inclusion francophone Saskatchewan, works with French-speaking newcomers in Saskatchewan. “Even people with great English cannot get jobs, so imagine how difficult it is for francophones living outside Quebec to get jobs.”

4. Assess the needs of francophone communities outside Quebec and invest in responsive services, mentorship, and network-building programs accordingly.

“I came from Rwanda, where I worked with the government,” Nirere says. “I had my bachelor’s degree in soil and environmental management, an in-demand skill in Canada. You see a list of in-demand skills, but nobody tells you how to connect with the right people. I completed a master’s degree from the University of Saskatchewan in sustainable environmental management in hopes of Canadian education, paving my path to a job in my field. Now I am told that I need Canadian experience to find relevant work. But despite my best efforts, my former education, experience, and Canadian education are not even getting me a volunteering opportunity in my field. I have started anew and now work in settlement with a francophone organization to support my family. Professional connections are critical in Canada, and they are difficult to make, especially if your field is technical. Programs that help build such connections could be a game changer.”

Professional connections are critical in Canada, and they are difficult to make, especially if your field is technical. Programs that help build such connections could be a game changer.

Marie-Grace Nirere, Service d’accueil et d’inclusion francophone Saskatchewan

Programs like the Rosie Mentorship Program can provide valuable support for newcomers. It connects women seeking advancement in their careers with unique mentors from their fields who can help them achieve their goals. An initiative of The Prosperity Project, it relies on a pool of volunteer mentors to build women’s confidence, skills, and networks. It is a peer-based model that helps women look for the inroads they need and opens doors that help them reach their fullest potential.

5. Normalize budgeting for holistic service provision, including childcare, transportation, and refreshment.

All program partners emphasize the need to include childcare and transportation across settlement programs for greater outreach, access, and impact. Partners say that lack of transportation exacerbates isolation and hinders settlement, especially in small centres and rural communities. Providing childcare and transport is critical – these are basic inclusivity measures. Services are at a distance, and there is limited or no public transit. Many newcomers need to pass driving tests before even thinking about buying a car. Even if the family has a car, women may not have access to it. Newcomers don’t have the community to support them with childcare, and existing childcare is often unaffordable or not culturally appropriate.

Partners have a hard time negotiating funds for refreshments from funders. Many newcomers face food insecurity and are uncomfortable seeking support unless they feel their needs have become acute. Families feel shy and feel their dignity is threatened if they ask for food. They fear judgment or even loss of their children’s custody if they share such barriers. Having a meal or refreshments encourages newcomers to take advantage of programs and often supports referrals to other essential services like food banks.

6. Rethink eligibility criteria given the context and demographics of groups in need.

Mike Gavin, an employment specialist at Immigrant and Refugees Services Association PEI, says that eligibility limitations based on clients’ status determine which services they can access. “Individuals on work permits are generally not able to access many free government training and re-skilling programs that are only offered to citizens and permanent residents. This lack of opportunity to train and upskill can make it more challenging for work permit holders to gain employment, especially in more competitive sectors.”

International students and work permit holders have similar needs and vulnerabilities as newcomers, and partner organizations are often forced to deny them service based on the conditions of government funding, which increases the precarity of their circumstances.

Based on our experience and feedback from our service-delivery partners, we urge policy-makers and funders to:

  • Invest in bold changes at the systems level based on emerging and rapidly evolving needs to harness newcomers’ potential and skills.
  • Enable targeted support for newcomer women to enter the job market and invest in laddering opportunities to move them up from the front lines to leadership positions to embody the diversity, equity, and inclusion agenda.
  • Encourage consistent efforts for cultural bridging and awareness raising to dispel harmful myths about immigrants and to showcase the skills and impact that newcomers bring to diversify and strengthen Canadian communities.
  • Fund more programs, including employment programs that use feminist approaches that normalize flexibility, remote work, job shares, and provision of affordable and culturally appropriate childcare for women to be able to join the workforce and progress in their careers.
  • Take to the design board with strategic and implementing partners, iteratively – again and again, to take stock of existing work and associated impact and encourage innovative approaches and programs that centre clients and respond to their needs.


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