When Adrian Ruxandar arrived in Edmonton in early July last year, he knew he needed a licence to begin working as an engineer but he didn’t know much more than that. The Romanian-born and educated Ruxandar had six years of experience as an electrical engineer, having worked for a national railway company in his home city of Iasi. He came to Canada for the work opportunities, and arrived in a province desperate for people with his talents. But getting started wasn’t easy.

“As an internationally educated graduate, I didn’t know exactly what to focus on regarding the documentation of my work experience,” he says, “and I had a lot of additional questions.”

Ruxandar approached the provincial governing body for engineers, the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA), later that month. “I sent them a message asking for a meeting with somebody because I had questions,” he says. “I received a response that they didn’t have someone at that moment to answer my questions and they said that I should refer to the website.” Ruxandar did so but couldn’t find the help he needed. So, for a time, he joined the list of frustrated, foreign-trained professionals unable to find work commensurate with their training.

The problem crosses most professions in Alberta but has become particularly acute in engineering with the steady and growing demand from the province’s oil and gas industry. A 2010 report from Randstad Engineering, which provides staffing help for companies in the field, predicts an annual average growth in engineering employment in Alberta of 1.6 per cent. The same report shows that most of the new positions will ultimately be filled by immigrants (see sidebar). At the same time, only 19 per cent of the 157,900 immigrants in Canada who had studied engineering abroad were actually working as engineers in 2006, the latest year for which such information is available.

Relief came for Ruxandar when he came across Guillermo Barreiro, himself an immigrant engineer and currently APEGA’s liaison tasked with helping internationally educated graduates (IEGs) navigate the licensing requirements. It is a complex process that involves providing references, work experience records, proof of English language competency and school transcripts. “The main difficulty for IEGs is the information that APEGA requires,” Barreiro says. “For work experience, for example, highlighting certain information is more relevant in some countries than others. It may not be applicable to APEGA. The whole idea is to educate them to highlight certain levels of their career.”

Barreiro says APEGA processed about 3,000 applications from internationally educated graduates in 2012, mostly from India, China and the U.S. But there is representation from every corner of the globe. Since he began working with APEGA last summer, Barreiro has met with approximately 100
immigrants and been in touch with many more via email, telephone and social media.

He has a special empathy for their predicament. A graduate of the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia, he went through the APEGA registration process himself. “I applied for my APEGA registration in 2006 and didn’t get it until 2007,” he recalls, adding that the typical licensing procedure takes between three to four months. “My process took a long time, and I had a hard time doing it. When I saw the posting for this position, I saw it as an opportunity to give back and as something that was important to new immigrants.”

“He clarified things for me,” Ruxandar says. “What I appreciated was his clarity. And he helped organize my application.”

The twist is that registration for a full APEGA license requires a year of Canadian equivalent work experience. Without this experience, IEGs must get a provisional license and work under the supervision of a professional for a year. Sergy Kasyanov, manager of outreach for the Council for Access to the Profession of Engineering (CAPE), believes that this is the largest barrier for immigrant engineers to find a job in their chosen field. “It’s like a vicious circle,” he says. “You need one year of experience but you need to be certified to get the one year of work experience.”

In an effort to rectify the problem, CAPE has collected more than 800 signatures for a petition they plan to submit to the federal government calling for a review of the licensing model. But given the fact that the vast majority of petitions submitted to government do little more than express the ire of their signatories and hardly ever make their way into legislation, foreign workers probably shouldn’t be holding their collective breath.

Calling All Canadians

Ken McMartin, director of professional and international affairs with Engineers Canada, says more than 4,000 Canadian engineers applied to move between provinces in 2011. That’s an increase of 37 per cent over the year before. “We saw the largest movement to Alberta, which is to be expected, followed by Saskatchewan and British Columbia,” says McMartin, who adds that most of the applications to other provinces originate in Ontario.

Although the registration process between provinces is a relatively simple one, it doesn’t generate the number of professional engineers needed for a growing economy like Alberta’s.

A 2012 report from Engineers Canada, Engineering Labour Market in Canada: Projections to 2020,shows a shortage in Alberta for engineers of various disciplines. It identifies a strong demand over the next two to three years for civil, geological, mechanical, electrical, industrial and manufacturing engineers. Looking beyond 2014 and 2015, the province is also expected to experience strong demand for petroleum, aerospace and computer engineers.

Many of those spaces will need to be filled by immigrants. A Randstad Engineering report from 2010, Engineering Labour Market Conditions 2009-2018, predicts that, between 2010 and 2018, an average of 866 locally graduated engineers will enter the labour force each year. The average number of immigrant engineers entering the workforce each year will be 1,103. Many of those will be temporary foreign workers, providing a stop-gap measure but not a long-term solution.