Foreign engineers: Is licensure absolutely essential?

Upon arriving in Canada, most foreign engineers discover a "dissonance" between the federal immigration policy for qualified workers, and the requirements of the various provincial professional associations. Chosen because of their diplomas, they are often required to go back to school to have them approved. Is the struggle worth it?

To be recognized as one of the 160,000 licenced engineers in Canada, the rules are clear. The profession is regulated and no one can practise as an engineer without being duly accredited by one of the 12 provincial professional associations. "Licensure is very important for public safety!" explains Marie Lemay, CEO of Engineers Canada, the national body to which the 12 associations belong. "It's the badge of quality, experience and professionalism of engineering graduates." The idea of controlling access to a profession whose accomplishments can endanger the public is sound, but gets a little complicated in practice.

Ottawa says yes, and the associations say maybe

According to Statistics Canada, the permanent immigration of foreign engineers to Canada increased ten-fold between 1980 and 1997. Since then, the phenomenon has continued. In 2006, 105,949 qualified workers—including a majority of engineers—benefited from this type of visa. This massive inflow of brains aims to make up for the shortage of engineers affecting certain regions (Alberta and British Columbia in particular) and engineering fields (e.g. chemical, petroleum, mechanical, civil and transportation).

Ottawa's main criteria for selecting candidates is their level of qualification. For provincial associations, on the other hand, all degrees are not created equal. "There is a big gap between Canadian immigration policy, according to which the more diplomas one has, the higher the chance of being granted permanent citizenship, and the reality of a labour market governed by professional associations that do not always recognize foreign training," explains Yann Hairaud, president of the Association montréalaise pour l’emploi (AMPE-CITI), an association that facilitates the integration of French-speaking immigrants in Quebec.

What this means is that diplomas from well-known schools in the U.S., Australia, the U.K. or France are automatically recognized via agreements reached with Engineers Canada. But the qualifications of most immigrants—from China, India, North Africa, Romania and other countries—must be validated with complementary evaluations. "In the best-case scenario, we're talking about a few exams," says Yann Hairaud. "But more often, foreign engineers have to redo all or part of their training. This can take up to three years, is very expensive, and comes with no guarantee of success. The deception can be enormous for immigrants."

A painful experience

Cameroonian Arsinoé Diop knows all about this. Selected by Canada because of his degree in telecommunications engineering from Russia, he filed a request for equivalence with the Quebec order of engineers upon arriving in 2004. In exchange, the association asked him to pass four exams over two years. "I was very motivated, the whole thing seemed to be within reach," he remembers. Arsinoé therefore enrolled at the École Polytechnique de Montréal to take courses in "professionalism and values," and "economics and communication."

Things quickly soured for the 30-something engineer when he had to quit the filler job he had found, under threat of not being able to participate in the equivalence training. After two semesters, his 5,000 euros in savings were exhausted and he had to quit the training. Unfortunately, Arsinoé's career is still on hold today. A night-shift security guard, he continues to search for the job of his dreams in telecommunications. "What's disappointing here is that each institution provides different information," he says. "But despite my debts, I have to grin and bear it. The day where I lose hope, I'll pack my bags and go back to Cameroon to teach."

Unofficial engineers

Due to the shortage of professionals, many immigrants have bypassed the provincial associations by being hired as engineers but without the official title. It all depends on the field. "In civil engineering or transportation, licensure is an absolute must in order to be able to sign plans," explains André Berthiaume, who works for specialized recruiting firm Tech’Aid. "Without this 'open sesame,' it is practically impossible to work."

But in other branches like computers or manufacturing, foreigners have more opportunities. They are less exposed, and often act as technical project managers. In general, immigrants start out by agreeing to work at jobs they are overqualified for. "The main problem is getting the first job, getting your foot in the door," says André Berthiaume. "After a few months, the doors open more easily to inside jobs or via the network. At that point, belonging to a professional order is not as important." In Montreal, Jérôme Doloy succeeded in getting a job this way. Working for SNC-Lavalin, he was put in charge of optimizing the energy efficiency of some 50 government buildings. With a French university degree in energy management (not recognized by the Order), he had to prove his competence in the field to move up the ladder." I don't need a licence because I don't have to sign my name to documents," he says. "I still consider myself an engineer, though, and so do my employers, and that's good enough for me."

In 2008, the exact number of these "unofficial" engineers will be known, thanks to a major national survey by Engineers Canada. What is certain is that Canada needs this work force more than ever. "We would like to include foreigners in the profession," affirms Marie Lemay, CEO of Engineers Canada. "but we will maintain Canadian engineering standards at all costs." The association's position is firm: in this country of reasonable accommodation, there will be no "unreasonable" equivalences. To be a Canadian engineer, an engineer with a foreign degree has and will always have to prove his or her knowledge in accordance with Canadian rules, upon examination or in the field. This being said, in light of requirements, there are some sectors open to competent and motivated professionals. What you need to do is check to see if your job is included in professions that are obligatorily regulated or if your sector authorizes working as an engineer without the official title.