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New Program Helps Immigrant Nurse Do What She Was Trained To Do…Be A Nurse

People take the citizenship oath at Pier 21 immigration centre in Halifax on July 1, 2017. Image: file photo/The Canadian Press.

MONCTON – With around five years of experience as a nurse in two countries, Josie Sacpa had accepted that her move to Canada last year meant giving up her career, at least for some time, because it costs thousands of dollars to get her credentials recognized.

She began working as a resident attendant at Mount Saint Joseph nursing home in Miramichi. But then she got injured and decided to pursue a return to her former profession.

“I told myself that I have to pursue my nursing career because being a resident attendant, in honesty, it’s physically [difficult],” said Sacpa. “You need more strength. So I want to upgrade and apply the skills that I’ve learned before.”

But the language testing, translation of documents, transportation to the testing site, accommodation, and the credentials verification itself, among other things, cost more than $4,000, according to calculations by Miramichi Regional Multicultural Association. And if the Canadian Nurses Association decides Sacpa needs to return to school or take courses, that would cost more.

“We want to pursue the assessment. It’s just that, we’re not financially capable since we are newcomers,” she said. “We’re trying to save, but there are lots of things we need to pay for first.”

Many highly-skilled and highly-educated newcomers are in similar situations. They end up working in lower-skilled jobs, often not in the field they desire. That affects the economy. According to a 2015 Conference Board of Canada report, the Canadian economy is missing out on as much as $13-billion a year because of unrecognized education and skills of immigrants.

At the same time, various sectors are facing a labour shortage. New Brunswick estimates that between 2018 and 2027, there will be a total of 8,223 openings for nursing and personal support worker-related roles alone.

The federal government, in partnership with the Royal Bank of Canada and settlement agencies, is hoping the Atlantic Immigrant Career Loan Fund (AICLF) launched this month could help. It covers regulated professions like nurses, physicians, engineers and accountants, as well as unregulated ones like project management, trades and transportation, said Alex LeBlanc, executive director of the New Brunswick Multicultural Council (NBMC).

The program is available in all Atlantic provinces, led by the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS). In New Brunswick, it will be delivered by NBMC, the Multicultural Association of the Greater Moncton Area, YMCA of Greater Saint John and the Multicultural Association of Fredericton.

Over the next four years, up to 200 eligible applicants in the province could get up to $15,000 each to cover the costs of training, testing, licensing and living costs while they pursue their credentialing. This allows them to take time to study or gain the Canadian experience they need through volunteer opportunities. They’d have to repay the loans with interest of “prime plus 1 per cent,” LeBlanc said.

“They only have to pay interest payment during their studies and then there’s a six-month grace period…It’s meant to be fairly low interest, but if people qualify for a student loan, then that’s where we’ll direct them,” LeBlanc said. “If their prospects of earning more and progressing in their career are strong, the likelihood is they’ll be approved for a loan to support them.”

While permanent residents seeking to go back to school to start over can access student loans, LeBlanc said getting their credentials recognized by taking professional exams and doing some bridging work could take two years or less.

“It’s faster and, ultimately, cheaper for the person to go through a credential recognition process rather than starting from square one,” he said.

Will It Work? 

According to Dr. Herb Emery, UNB’s Vaughan Chair or Regional Economics, such micro-loans program work very well if done properly.

“We know that they work because we’ve seen them operating for some time in the West,” he said. “The experience of that program out West shows how, with just a little bit of investment, we can take people who are already here and allow them to contribute so much more to the economy and things that we need and also help them feel more welcome and integrated. This is in contrast to strategies where we’re just going to keep looking for new immigrants and hope they fit better.”

Emery was one of the researchers that studied the outcome of the Immigrant Access Fund pilot project in Alberta in 2012, now called Windmill Microlending. That was a micro-loan program for immigrant professionals who were struggling to get their credentials recognized. Money was one of the biggest barriers for them. Being newcomers, they also lacked access to loans in general because they had no credit history and no collateral.

Private money was used to back about a $1-million line of credit. The province and federal government covered the administration cost of the loans, which were $5,000 each and were payable after the newcomers get their credentials.

Some 97.5 per cent of the borrowers repaid the loans in full shortly after getting credentialed, and they saw their hourly income increase significantly. Emery’s calculations showed the government also benefited.

“The federal and the provincial governments more than recouped their loan administration costs in the first year after the borrowers earning program was done. So it’s an extremely high return program, which isn’t really a shock because you’re taking really high-qualified, smart people and removing a barrier to working to the full extent of their human capital,” he said. “And for $5,000 to turn someone into an accountant – that’s quite an amazing return on investments.”

The AICLF is slightly different. It builds on a similar loan program that was more regionally focused, called the Career Pathway Loan Fund, which was managed by ISANS and NBMC.

“It became clear that a streamlined and stronger regional approach to the loan program was more beneficial to the newcomers as well as the agencies that managed it,” said Ginette Gautreau, NBMC’s assistant director.

“Overall we have a stronger capacity within our agencies, more automated processing and database tools, better negotiation with banks, more funds available for lending, et cetera. The regional approach brought the microloan program to P.E.I. and Newfoundland where there was previously no similar program, so a broader reach as well.”

RBC is the lending entity for the AICLF, but Economic and Social Development Canada funded a loan-loss reserve in case of defaults. RBC will absorb 50 per cent of the risk on the loans, LeBlanc explained.

“There seems to be a mismatch in terms of linking these highly educated, highly skilled immigrants to the opportunities that we know are in the economy already. Part of it is they may be lacking something like Canadian experience or credentials,” Emery said.

“What I expect to see if [AICLF is] operating on the same basis as the program that I studied, these immigrant borrowers, within about a year, will get the credentials or experience they need and you’ll start to see them moving into some of these jobs that pay really well and will start attaching these guys to our population for the long term.”

Emery says many small and medium-sized businesses would benefit from this as well, especially those who don’t have human resources departments that can distinguish across credentials and don’t have the budget to train or pay for people to get the credentialing they need.

“What they’re doing is they’re basically allowing the immigrant to invest in the training and credentialing that will benefit the small and medium-sized businesses who now know that this is someone who can move into their firm and work for them,” he said.

Emery says loan programs are not a quick fix for highly regulated professions like physicians, but they could help retain newcomers.

It’s not just income. It’s also the respect and dignity that comes with it if you’re a professional and you’ve worked as one for years in your home country.”

“And then you come here and we send you to be a labour market entrant?” he said. “Other places aren’t doing that if they can figure out what [immigrants] can do instead of just saying, ‘we’ll wait for you to prove who you are.’ So, I think this is exactly the kind of program we need to improve retention because that’s going to open up opportunities here much sooner than otherwise.”

“If you have a job that you feel good about, that you’re being compensated for and…having a clear path that you can see to your career goals and having the support through programs like this and through a range of other services that are available through settlement agencies and partners, that makes it a lot more encouraging and ultimately will help newcomers see a future in New Brunswick,” LeBlanc added.

In the meantime, Sacpa is glad to have the opportunity to accelerate her path to nursing.

“Maybe through these programs, we can achieve our dreams in a shorter period.”