Ajay Raut came to Edmonton in April 2012 looking for two things: a better work-life balance and new opportunities to grow professionally. The first wasn’t that hard to find. The second would only come after years of searching.

Eager to leave behind the fast-paced lifestyle of Mumbai, India, Raut came to Canada with his wife, three children, and a resume that anyone would be happy to have. He held a Bachelor of Architecture degree and had been working as a project coordinator for several years at Lodha Group, one of India’s major real estate developers. His experience involved residential and commercial projects totaling millions of square feet in size, including high-profile buildings like the 48-storey Lodha Bellissimoresidential development in the heart of Mumbai.

So what was his first Canadian job? IKEA kitchen planner.

Raut had no complaints about the position - it was a great way to learn more about how Canadians communicate, he says - but he also knew that he was not making the best use of his skills. He could not apply for architecture jobs because of his lack of Canadian certification, and he struggled to find relevant positions in the construction sector.

“It was a very frustrating situation,” Raut says. “I realized that I had to somehow get back into my industry. Staying out of the field for too long was not going to help me.”

Finally, after a year and a half working at IKEA, he landed an estimator job at Carrington Group. Unfortunately, the position was short-lived, and he was laid off in 2016 in the wake of the economic downturn.

Constructing Futures

Enter Constructing Futures, a program launched in 2017 by the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers (EMCN). A friend suggested Raut consider the six-month program, which is designed to help immigrants looking for work as construction project managers. It includes project leadership training courses at NAIT and an eight-week practicum, as well as EMCN classes on computer skills and Canadian workplace culture.

After completing the course in late 2017, Raut did a practicum at Scott Builders, which would eventually hire him permanently as a project coordinator. It has been a six-year journey, but he has finally found what he was looking for when he first came to Canada.

“When I left India in 2012, I was working for a construction company there as a project coordinator,” he says. “This program has put me back exactly where I wanted to be in my professional career.”

Raut’s story is far from uncommon for newcomers. Educated individuals who come to Canada can easily struggle to find a foothold in the job market, whether because their past job experiences mean less in a new country, they are grappling with cultural differences and language barriers, or their training is simply not recognized here. According to the Alberta government, the unemployment rate for landed immigrants in the province in 2016 was 9.8 per cent, compared to the 8.1 per cent provincial unemployment rate. Underemployment can be harder to measure, but a 2016 Conference Board of Canada report found that 524,000 immigrants were unemployed or underemployed due to a lack of recognition for their educational credentials.

This is where employment bridging programs can play a part, and EMCN’s Constructing Futures program represents a targeted approach geared specifically to project managers in the construction sector. The program launched in January 2017 as a two-year pilot funded by Alberta Labour and is currently hosting its third group of students. The fourth and final class of the pilot will begin later this year in July.

Derrick Schmuhl, manager, bridging and training programs at EMCN, is optimistic the program will continue past the initial pilot stage. In the first two classes, the number of students completing their practicums was well above 90 per cent - a good success rate by any measure, he notes.

And there’s certainly demand for the program in Edmonton’s immigrant community. Each intake begins with information sessions that draw anywhere from 100 to 150 expressions of interest. From there, 50 to 60 people are interviewed and 25 to 30 of those individuals are invited to apply for one of up to 18 spots in the class.

“We meet a lot of talented individuals, but they’ve maybe been hitting some road blocks in reaching out to employers,” Schmuhl says. “The program helps them with strategizing and understanding the job market and how to apply their skills to it.”

Learning the Basics to Landing a Job in Canada

While the NAIT portion of the program provides project management training, the EMCN section covers many of the basics of landing a job in Canada. In the business communication class, students learn everything from crafting effective resumes and cover letters to many of the essentials of fitting into the Canadian workplace, such as the importance of making small talk and networking.

Pamela Cuevas and Hernan Barrios, a couple currently taking the program, have seen their fair share of challenges since arriving in Canada from Chile over a year ago. Cuevas, an industrial engineer with experience on Santiago’s metro system, aspires to work on one of Edmonton’s LRT developments, while Barrios hopes to use his electrical engineering training in the technology industry, perhaps working with software.

Barrios was born in Canada before he moved to Chile at age nine, and the pair is fortunate that he still has family here. While taking the course all day Monday to Friday, they earn extra money on the weekend working at a building maintenance company owned by Barrios’ father. He’s relearning English and she’s studying the language for the first time, but there’s one term they already understand well: survival job.

They’ve been sharpening their language skills, either by giving public presentations or practicing small talk through the program. Meanwhile, the NAIT project management courses give them a chance to mingle with people from outside the program, including some who already work in project management. The opportunity to meet people - both other immigrants and Canadian professionals - has been one of the most valuable parts of this program for the couple so far.

“This course is great because you meet other newcomers who are in the same situation as you. Even our classmates from Asia or Africa are similar to us,” Cuevas says. “We don’t feel alone.”

Another graduate of the program, Nigeria-born electrical engineer Olusegun Ajayi, found the program particularly helpful when it came time for him to do job interviews. Shortly after arriving in Canada in May 2016, he landed a three-month contract as a solution architect for an Edmonton software company, but after his contract wasn’t renewed he struggled with his job hunt.

“The Canadian interviewer really wants to know how you can think. It’s about your interactions and relationships with your colleagues, and you’re expected to give examples from past experience,” Ajayi says. “These are not the kind of questions that I was asked back in Nigeria.”

The training seems to have paid off for him. Ajayi was part of the first group of Constructing Futures students in January 2017, and he did his practicum with Sunco Communication and Installation. The company has since hired him full-time as a project manager, and he cites the practicum as a key part of his experience in the program.

“Sometimes after applying to job upon job, with no interviews and no offers, you’re discouraged. Why did I decide to leave and bring all my family here? Why did I make this move when I’m working in some low-skilled job?” he says. “The eight-week practicum helps break down those barriers. It gives us opportunities to prove yourself to a potential employer. It gives us hope.”