27.07.2010 in Top Stories Bookmark and Share

Study finds immigrants who embrace challenges more successful

How qualified immigrants react to challenges they face in building a career in a new country corresponds to how proactive they are and how well they are equipped to cope psychologically and overcome barriers, a new study has found.

Jelena Zikic, a professor in York’s School of Human Resource Management, is the lead researcher for a Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada-funded study which involved interviewing 45 qualified immigrants in Canada, Spain and France. The study looked at the barriers to career development for qualified immigrants in each country, how they coped with them and whether they were able to overcome them.

“These are people who consciously made this decision to move to a new country and had the education and resources to do so,” says Zikic. “It’s a highly skilled group.”

Left: Jelena Zikic

The study is one of three in Zikic’s research project “Investigating Labour Market Experiences of Immigrant Professionals (IPs) in Canada, the Role of Personal and Organizational Barriers to Career Success in the Host Country”. An article based on the study, “Crossing National Boundaries: A Typology of Qualified Immigrants’ Career Orientations”, co-authored by Zikic, Jaime Bonache of the ESADE Business School in Spain and Jean-Luc Cerdin of the ESSEC Business School in France, has been published in the July issue of the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

In terms of experience in dealing with immigrants, Canada is considered the "country of immigrants", Spain is just beginning to get an influx of immigrants, and France falls somewhere in between, says Zikic. Despite the differences, what researchers found was that immigrants in each country faced similar significant barriers to the labour market, such as a lack of recognition for their foreign career training and experience, learning how to navigate the labour expectations of a new country, and difficulty creating new social networks and tapping into local resources to assist in finding a job.

“It is a very challenging journey that these people take. Getting work doesn’t happen overnight,” says Zikic. “A lot of these immigrants had great careers in their own country. They had to give up quite a bit. Many of them had a lot of status, friends, a network, and it all disappeared when they entered the host country.”

The study sought to understand the underlying causes of underemployment for qualified immigrants from professional backgrounds and how they managed physical and psychological mobility.

What they found was the subjective experiences of qualified immigrants were interdependent with the social, economic and cultural realities, such as the structure of local labour markets and the need to retrain. Older immigrants were often more resistant to retraining and re-education, believing they were too old. As a result, they were more disappointed with the experience and had less success in finding work in their field.

Those who embraced the new challenges, about 24 per cent of those interviewed, were extremely positive about career success in the new country, while the majority – 49 per cent – adapted to their new circumstances and were successful at either adapting their careers or crafting new ones, although many were in survival jobs. The adaptive group understood the reality of having to retrain or get more education and was prepared to deal with the circumstances. “They had this sort of future orientation; they knew good things would come eventually,” says Zikic. The remaining 27 per cent found the obstacles impossible to overcome as they often had psychological barriers as well, such as age or other constraining circumstances.

Immigrants used six strategies in finding work – maintaining motivation, managing identity, developing new credentials, developing local know-how, building a new social network and understanding career success – but again, how successful they were was dependent on whether they embraced, adapted or resisted the challenges.

“It’s incredible how much talent is searching for the right job and a lot of immigrants just give up,” says Zikic. “We often call this the brain waste; they’re underemployed.”

It is important when devising programs for immigrants to keep in mind the interplay between subjective experiences and the objective realities, she says. Most studies look at one or the other, but little has been done on how each affects the other, and more research is needed.

Zikic also notes that in Canada there is a need for more programs that offer occupation-specific mentoring to immigrants, such as The Mentoring Partnership available through the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer

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