Communication Challenges and Labour Market Integration of Skilled Migrants

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June 2, 2014 by ceris

Language matters in so many ways, especially in the case of migrants. The Language Matters conference, organized by York University’s School of Nursing on May 16th, 2014 (Toronto), offered a series of presentations and roundtables addressing the role of language fluency in the integration of immigrant professionals into the labour market. Speakers noted that to be licensed and successfully employed in a regulated profession, skilled migrants must meet certain language standards. However, satisfying the language requirements is not an easy task for many migrants who wish to practice in Canada. This situation creates some tension between two different but important objectives of the licensing process: the opportunity for professionals to practice their profession and the regulatory body’s duty to protect the public’s interest.

Competing priorities: Skilled migrants’ opportunity to practice vs. the public’s interest

To explore the above noted dilemma, Taivi Lobu, the conference’s keynote speaker and Chair of Ontario Health Professions Appeal and Review, shared her insights into the administrative law perspective. She stated that there are many challenges surrounding the assessment of language competency in licensing procedures. According to Lobu, one of these challenges is that different actors develop and implement different language regulations, which leads to diverging conclusions and expectations. For example, regulatory bodies of health professions assign different interpretations to the term “reasonable fluency”, which is used to describe the level of language competency required of skilled immigrants.

Apart from defining the term, one must also ask about the logic and implications of reasonable fluency: Is language fluency an intrinsic indicator of professional competency? Does failure to meet reasonable fluency mean skilled migrants are not able to satisfy the standards of regulated professions?

These questions, as suggested by Lobu, help regulatory bodies determine why fluency is necessary and mandatory. In a recent Ontario court ruling regarding Chinese medicine practitioners, language fluency was deemed necessary in order to enable internationally educated professionals to communicate with colleagues, understand medical records, and handle emergencies.

Social factors as determinants of language fluency among skilled immigrants

Another thought-provoking discussion was led by the conference co-chairs, Drs. Lillie Lum and Pat Bradley of York University’s School of Nursing. They presented the preliminary findings of a study titled, Challenges in Oral Communication for Internationally Educated Nurses. This study examines the professional communication challenges of internationally educated nurses (IENs) enrolled in York University’s bridging program.

Although social and cultural connections are essential for skilled migrants, these are often overlooked in language assessments. “Fluency depends on a complex mixture of individual and environmental factors,” stated Dr. Lum. For that reason, her research project looked at other influential factors aside from language tests. Using this approach, the team found that migrants’ family background, perceived language fluency, perceived use of communication strategies, and their perception about work in Canada play a role on a nurse’s language competency. The researchers also found that the lack of language competency poses many challenges, including limited employment opportunities, low earnings, and diminished occupational safety.

The correlation between migration drivers and language difficulties is another interesting finding. Migrants who move to Canada due to forced migration are more likely to experience language difficulties than those who voluntarily choose to migrate. Having work experience in the source country also has a positive impact on the language competency of skilled migrants. As well, nurses who are educated in English from an early age are more fluent than those who learn the language at a later age.

Lanugage fluency is not the only challenge for IENs. The research participants also highlighted the significance of building rapport with co-workers and fitting into the Canadian culture of nursing practice. They would like to improve their communication and social skills in order to feel comfortable and capable of resolving conflict with patients or colleagues. To help address this gap, Dr. Lum recommended teaching internationally trained professionals how to develop communication strategies.

Helping migrants acquire and build on their communication skills is key to their overall integration and wellbeing. For skilled migrants, the ability to practice in Canada is a highly rewarding and meaningful experience. Even the Supreme Court of Canada acknowledges the importance of practicing one’s profession. In a 1987 ruling regarding the Public Service Employee Relations Act, the Court stated that “a person’s employment is an essential component of his or her sense of identity, self-worth and emotional well-being.”

About the blog author

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Monica Valencia recently joined CERIS as a Knowledge Exchange Officer. Previously, she worked in the non-profit sector as a project lead for multi-sectoral initiatives focused on diversity and inclusion. She graduated from the master’s program in Immigration and Settlement Studies at Ryerson University, where she conducted research on newcomer children and their wellbeing.   

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