Immigrants working in regulated occupations

By Danielle Zietsma

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In 2006, there were 3.6 million immigrants in Canada's labour force, many of whom were highly educated. Education levels of more recent immigrants have risen in recent years such that, by 2006, 42% of immigrants who had landed in Canada since 2001 had a university degree. At the same time, 16% of the Canadian-born had university degrees. In addition to high levels of education, many of these immigrants also came with foreign work experience.

One of the principal goals of Canadian immigration policy is to fill gaps in the labour market. With the aging of the baby boomers, a number of occupational shortages have emerged in the Canadian labour market, particularly in health care professions (such as physicians, nurses and pharmacists) and in management occupations. Shortages are projected to continue as boomers exit the labour market (Human Resources and Skills Development Canada 2007). Some projections imply that immigrants could account for nearly all labour force growth as soon as 2011 (Statistics Canada 2003).

Despite their high levels of educational attainment, many recent immigrants struggle in the labour market. In 2006, immigrants who had been in Canada for less than 10 years had higher unemployment rates and lower employment rates than those born in Canada. Furthermore, many of these immigrants were unable to find jobs in their chosen fields. And, in recent years, immigrants have become more likely to be in low income (Picot, Hou and Coulombe 2007).

New immigrants to Canada indicate that they faced a number of challenges in the Canadian labour market, most importantly: not enough Canadian job experience, lack of connections in the job market and foreign credentials not being recognized (Schellenberg and Maheux 2007). Others suggest that newcomers may lack knowledge about getting their skills recognized, employers may lack knowledge about foreign credentials, and there may be real differences in the quality of foreign credentials relative to domestic qualifications (Kustec, Thompson and Xue 2007).

For many occupations, hiring is based on the employer's decision that the candidate has an acceptable combination of education and experience to do the job. For those seeking work in regulated occupations, another hurdle is added. Regulated occupations are governed by provincial regulatory bodies and/or professional associations and have very specific requirements regarding the credentials necessary to practice the occupations. This study focuses on the regulated occupations since a clear relationship exists between educational credentials and the ability to meet the requirements of the occupation.

Many occupations for which immigrants have trained are regulated occupations. These include engineering, medicine, nursing and teaching. For immigrants who wish to work in a regulated occupation, practicing that occupation outside Canada is not considered sufficient and they must prove that their foreign credentials meet Canadian standards.

In 2006, of the 1.5 million university-educated, working-age immigrants (15 years of age and over), 41% had studied in fields that would typically place them in regulated occupations compared to 39% of Canadian-born university graduates.

This study examines the extent to which immigrants in 2006 with a field of study that typically leads to a regulated occupation were working in that occupation (see Data source and definitions). For example, how likely are immigrants with engineering degrees to find work as an engineer? It then examines how this match rate varies across provinces and by the immigrants' source countries, and the amount of time they spent in Canada. Finally, it looks at the type of work performed by those not working in the occupations for which they studied.

1.8 million graduates from fields of study leading to regulated professions

In 2006, there were 1.8 million university degree holders in Canada from fields of study that would typically lead to work in a regulated occupation. Of these, 208,700 were immigrants educated in Canada, while 403,900 were immigrants who were foreign-educated (Table 1).

Immigrants with a degree in a regulated field of study who studied outside Canada had an unemployment rate that was much higher than that for Canadian-educated immigrants with similar degrees. In 2006, foreign-educated immigrants from regulated fields of study had an unemployment rate of 7.0%, while immigrants with Canadian degrees in regulated fields of study had an unemployment rate of 4.2%, a gap of 2.8 percentage points.

Engineering graduates most numerous among immigrants

In 2006, the field of study distribution differed between immigrants and those born in Canada. Among immigrants from a field of study that typically leads to a regulated occupation, over one-half (52%) of foreign-educated graduates had engineering degrees (Table 2). Among the Canadian-born, education was the number one field of study (47%), while engineering was the second at 17%.

Foreign-educated immigrants less likely to work in their fields of study

Foreign-educated immigrants with fields of study that typically lead to regulated professions were less likely to work in these professions compared to the Canadian-born. Among those employed in 2006, 62% of the Canadian-born were working in the regulated profession for which they trained compared to only 24% of foreign-educated immigrants.

Both the length of time spent living in Canada and where they studied had an impact on immigrants' ability to find work in the regulated profession for which they studied. In 2006, regardless of how long immigrants had been in Canada, those who had studied in Canada had much higher match rates than immigrants who had studied abroad (Chart A). Those who landed in Canada in 1996 or earlier and held a Canadian degree had match rates that were twice as high as their foreign-educated counterparts. In fact, with more time in Canada, the match rates for both foreign- and Canadian-educated immigrants increased.

While the differences in match rates between Canadian- and foreign-educated immigrants with the same landing period show that Canadian-educated immigrants do not face the obstacle of foreign credential recognition (and are less likely to have foreign work experience), they also reflect other factors. For example, the differences might also indicate that these immigrants are more likely to speak an official language with greater ease, have more knowledge of the Canadian labour market, and have more established networks through which to find employment.

To focus on the recognition of foreign credentials, immigrants who obtained their university degrees in Canada have been excluded from the sample for the remainder of the study.

Foreign-educated immigrants less likely to find work in their trained professions

Canadian-born and foreign-educated immigrants in regulated health occupations generally had the highest match rates (Table 3). These included medicine, occupational therapy, chiropractics and nursing. While these fields had high match rates for the Canadian-born, the same was not always true for foreign-educated immigrants. Immigrants who trained as chiropractors had a match rate that was comparable to the Canadian-born match rate (84% versus 87%). Immigrants who trained as nurses and occupational therapists had match rates that were lower than that for their Canadian-born counterparts, (56% versus 73% for nurses and 65% versus 82% for occupational therapists), but nevertheless had some of the highest match rates among foreign-educated immigrants.

Among the health professions, veterinary medicine had one of the lowest match rates for immigrants—29%, compared to 83% for the Canadian-born. Of the Canadian-born who studied dentistry, 90% worked as dentists compared to 44% of immigrants.

Immigrants who studied law outside Canada had the lowest match rates of all fields of study leading to a regulated occupation. While 69% of the Canadian-born who studied law worked as lawyers, the corresponding figure was 12% for immigrants, making the Canadian-born with law degrees almost 6 times as likely as immigrants to be working as lawyers.

Engineering was the most common field of study in a regulated occupation for immigrants. Of the 157,900 immigrants who studied engineering and were employed, 30,000 were working as engineers, a match rate of 19%. Slightly more Canadian-born graduates studied engineering (167,300), with a match rate more than double that of immigrants (42%).

While 92% of the Canadian-born who studied medicine were working as doctors in 2006, immigrants with the same field of study were less likely to be working as doctors (56%).

Match rates by province

While match rates among the Canadian-born were similar from province to province, match rates for foreign-educated immigrants were more varied (Table 4). The provincial match rates for the Canadian-born fell between 59% and 65%, while for immigrants they ranged from a low of 19% in Quebec to a high of 60% in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Foreign-educated immigrants living in Canada's most popular immigrant destinations (Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec) had the lowest match rates. Immigrants in Quebec were the least likely to find a career match in their field of study, with 19% of immigrants working in the regulated occupation most commonly associated with their field of study. British Columbia was next with a match rate of 22%, and Ontario's rate was 24%. In all of these provinces, the match rates for immigrants were less than one-half the match rates of the Canadian-born in their respective provinces.

Newfoundland and Labrador had the highest match rate for immigrants at 60%, three percentage points behind the Canadian-born in the province. However, their numbers were small: 605 in total.

While the mix of fields of study can have an impact on overall provincial match rates, other factors, like distribution of immigrants by period of landing, could also affect overall match rates. More specifically, provinces with higher concentrations of more recent immigrants could have lower match rates than those with higher concentrations of immigrants who have been in Canada for longer than 10 years since more recent immigrants are less likely to be working in the regulated occupation for which they trained.

Quebec, with the lowest match rate, also had the highest proportion of immigrants who had studied for regulated occupations (42%) and landed after 2001 (Chart B). Elsewhere the results were less clear cut. In general, the Atlantic provinces had higher proportions of immigrants who had landed prior to 1996. Match rates for immigrants were also above the national average in Saskatchewan and Alberta, regions that had strong labour markets in 2006. Ontario's match rate for foreign-educated immigrants mirrored the national average at 24%. In contrast, Quebec and British Columbia had match rates that were below the national average.

Immigrants with the highest match rates studied in countries with similar education systems and language of instruction as Canada

Immigrants with the highest match rates studied in English-speaking countries, the official language spoken by the majority of Canadians. In fact, these immigrants had very similar match rates to the Canadian-born. Immigrants who studied in Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa had match rates that were similar to the 62% rate for the Canadian-born, while the match rate for all immigrants was 24%. Immigrants from Australia and the United Kingdom also had match rates that were well above the average (Table 5).

At the other end of the spectrum, immigrants with the lowest match rates often obtained their degrees in developing countries (Table 6). Immigrants who studied in Kazakhstan had the lowest match rate, with 7% working in the associated regulated occupation.

What are the actual occupations of the unmatched?

The unmatched are university graduates who studied for a regulated occupation but are employed in a different occupation. Based on match rates of 62% for the Canadian-born and 24% for all immigrants, there remains a substantial fraction of both groups who were unmatched. In total, in 2006 there were approximately 365,000 Canadian-born graduates and 216,000 foreign-educated immigrants who were working in occupations to which their studies would not typically lead.

The top two occupations held by unmatched immigrants in 2006 were in professional occupations in natural and applied sciences, followed by technical occupations related to natural and applied sciences, and accounting for 33% of unmatched immigrants (Table 7).

The next two occupations were clerical and sales and service occupations. Twenty-six percent of unmatched immigrants were working in these occupations, which would not normally require a degree.

Among the Canadian-born, the most common occupations among the unmatched in 2006 were 'other managers' (which includes managers outside senior management), followed by teachers and professors. Clerical occupations were in the top 10 for unmatched Canadian-born graduates, with 6% of the Canadian-born falling here. Unmatched immigrants, however, were even more likely to work in clerical occupations, with 16% holding clerical jobs. Sales and service occupations accounted for less than 1% of positions among the Canadian-born working outside their field of study compared to 10% for immigrants.

Thus it appears a much higher proportion of highly qualified immigrants than Canadian-born graduates are working in occupations requiring less education than they have acquired. This hypothesis can be addressed more directly by assigning skill levels to occupations (see, for example, Galarneau and Morissette 2008).

Are the unmatched Canadian-born more likely to work in highly skilled jobs than unmatched immigrants?

The Department of Human Resources and Skills Development's National Occupational Classification System (NOC) not only classifies occupations, but also includes a skill level associated with each of its occupations. There are four main skill levels: university degree; college or apprenticeship training; high school; and short-work demonstration (for example, a demonstration on how to operate a cash register or how to serve food to customers). University graduates who are working in occupations that require less than a university education are considered 'overqualified' for their positions.

Since all people in the sample have university degrees, the percentage of those working in occupations requiring less than university is the overqualification rate. In 2006, 57% of unmatched Canadian-born graduates were overqualified compared to 77% of immigrants (Table 8).

When it came to working in an occupation that required no formal education (known as a short-work demonstration), unmatched immigrants were almost three times as likely to be in these occupations. While 11% of unmatched immigrants were working in these types of jobs in 2006, this was the case for 4% of the unmatched Canadian-born.


This study found that, in 2006, immigrants who studied for a regulated occupation outside Canada were less likely to be working in that occupation compared to both immigrants who studied in Canada and those who were born in Canada.

In 2006, there were 284,000 employed foreign-educated immigrants from fields of study that would normally lead to work in a regulated occupation. Of this number, 24% were working in their trained professions. In contrast, 163,000 Canadian-educated immigrants studied for work in a regulated occupation, with a match rate of 53%. The match rate among the Canadian-born was 62%.

While foreign-educated immigrants were less likely to work in the regulated occupations for which they held degrees, this discrepancy narrowed with time spent in Canada. However, even after 10 years in Canada, foreign-trained immigrants trailed the match rate of the Canadian-born by 27 percentage points, while Canadian-educated immigrants trailed by 6 percentage points.

The match rate also varied by regulated occupation for which an individual had studied. Immigrants with fields of study in health professions had higher match rates than those who studied to be teachers, engineers and lawyers. While match rates for foreign-educated doctors and nurses were both 56%, the rate was much lower for those who studied teaching (20%), and was lower still for those who studied engineering (the most common field of study among foreign-educated immigrants) at 19%. Immigrants who were law graduates had the lowest match rate of all fields of study at 12%.

On a provincial level, match rates were highest for immigrants in the East, particularly in Newfoundland and Labrador (with rates similar to the Canadian-born). Match rates for immigrants were also above the national average in Saskatchewan and Alberta, regions that had strong labour markets in 2006. In contrast, Quebec and British Columbia had match rates that were below the national average, while Ontario's match rate mirrored the national average.

Foreign-educated immigrants who were not working in the regulated occupation typically associated with their field of study were often working in professional occupations in natural and applied sciences and technical occupations related to natural and applied sciences. However, large shares of these immigrants were also working in clerical occupations and sales and service occupations despite their high levels of educational attainment.

While all of the unmatched foreign-educated immigrants in the study had university degrees that could lead to work in a regulated occupation, many of them had considerably more education than what would normally be required for the jobs they did find in 2006. While 57% of the unmatched Canadian-born were overqualified, this was the case for 77% of unmatched immigrants. Foreign-educated immigrants were also more commonly found in low-skill jobs. In 2006, 11% of foreign-educated immigrants were working in occupations whose skill level required a short-work demonstration and no formal education compared to just 4% of the Canadian-born.

Overall, these results accord with studies that point to some barriers for foreign-trained immigrants intending to work in their chosen occupations in Canada. Results from a survey of Canadian employers by the Public Policy Forum showed that many employers make their hiring decisions based on their perception that the credentials or experience are not equivalent without verifying them (Public Policy Forum 2004). The survey also indicated that many employers—particularly employers in regulated occupations—did not value foreign work experience as much as Canadian work experience. Other research indicates that the lower valuation placed on the foreign work experience of immigrants plays a role in the immigrant–native earnings gap (Green and Worswick 2002).

Data source and definitions

Unless otherwise stated, all data are from Statistics Canada's 2006 Census of Population. Since census data are randomly rounded to the nearest 0 or 5, not all numbers will reflect totals and there may be slight differences among tables.

Who's included in this study?
Immigrants and persons born in Canada who meet all of the following criteria:

  • non-institutional resident
  • age 15 or over
  • university degree holder
  • have a field of study that typically leads to a nationally regulated occupation
  • employed
  • immigrant who obtained university credentials outside Canada
  • not a senior manager (since no skill level information is available for this group)

Occupations that are regulated in all Canadian provinces and chosen for study:

  • Accountants
  • Chiropractors
  • Dentists
  • Dieticians/Nutritionists
  • Engineers
  • Lawyers
  • Occupational Therapists
  • Optometrists
  • Pharmacists
  • Doctors
  • Physiotherapists
  • Registered Nurses
  • Teachers
  • Veterinarians

A note on regulated occupations: Occupations that are regulated either by the provinces or by professional associations are generally regulated because they have a responsibility either for public health or to protect consumers/clients. For this reason, educational and any additional requirements are clearly defined and licensure cannot be obtained unless requirements are clearly met.

For the regulated occupations selected for this study, detailed occupational requirements are in Appendix I. Some nationally regulated occupations have been excluded from the study due to small numbers of immigrants studying and/or working in those fields.

While a small number of the Canadian-born may have studied abroad (fewer than 150,000 out of over 3 million), these people have been left in the Canadian-born group since they are few in number and do not affect the overall results.

The main indicator employed in this study is the 'match rate'—the total number of people working in the selected regulated occupations divided by the total number of employed people from the fields of study that would typically lead them to work in those occupations.1 (See Appendix II for a list of the fields of study that constitute a match with NOC occupations as defined by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.)


  1. Match rates among immigrants are related to a number of factors that are beyond the scope of this study: foreign credential recognition, recognition of foreign work experience, personal characteristics, labour market conditions, and personal choices (for example, the desire to re-qualify for a regulated occupation in Canada).


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Danielle Zietsma is with the Labour Statistics Division. She can be reached at 613-951-4243 or

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