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Bridging programs help international professionals continue their career of choice in Nova Scotia 

Many immigrants come to Canada looking to continue their career of choice, but encounter obstacles to achieving the needed certifications to do so. In a recent issue, My Halifax Experience told the story of Conrado Praxedes Silva Neto, an immigrant from Brazil who was able to access the Internationally Educated Engineers Bridging Program (IEE) through Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS). However, engineering isn’t the only field in which such bridging programs are available. 

Mohja Aila, manager of Employment and Bridging Programs at ISANS, says the association has built a lot of bridges over the years and it’s far from finished. 

“What we realized over the years is our internationally educated professionals, whether they’re in a professional background or even in trades, need to demonstrate their skills to employers,” Aila says. “Most of the programs we develop are based on the clients who are working in regulated occupations…we can work with the regulators, with employers, and identify the competencies needed to work in the field, the exams they need to go through to prepare for licensure, and work according to each occupation’s needs.” 

The earliest bridging programs ISANS put together were for medical professionals, back around 2010. The first career paths supported were for international medical and pharmacy graduates. 

“In 2011, we started with dentists and later in 2014-15 we started with nurses and financial services,” Aila says. “It’s according to the labour market and the clients we are receiving in Nova Scotia. At this point, we have about 10 programs.” 

The IEE program is actually one of the more recent additions to the bridging catalogue, along with architects and accountants. In each case, ISANS has collaborated with regulators in each field to put together a curriculum of study groups, professional assistance from volunteers, and mock exams to help fast track each client to get whatever accreditation they need as quickly as is reasonably possible. 

“We run ongoing educational sessions and mock OSCEs (objective structured clinical examination) where we hire simulated patients and we create medical cases, and they practice the real exam,” Aila says. “They can’t just come and say, ‘I’m a doctor, and I’m going to practice.’ They have to pass an evaluating exam, and they have to pass a qualifying exam, and then the OSCE. After that, they may have to go to either residency or start a practice-ready assessment, depending on their situation, before they can start practicing in their fields.  

“This is a very lengthy and complicated process and there are so many factors affecting it.” 

The point of these exercises isn’t just to put people through hurdles to appease employers, Aila says. Instead, these careers are regulated for a reason and these qualifying steps are in place to ensure newcomers are working from the proper standards each field has determined is necessary in Canada, and in Nova Scotia specifically.  

“It’s all about really making sure the public is safe,” Aila says. “It’s not like they are putting up obstacles; it’s to ensure the safety of the public and looking at other, innovative ways of bringing the skilled talent in.” 

In the last few years, ISANS began bridging the gap for two new career paths in high demand of late: Internationally Educated Early Childhood Educators (IEECE) and Long-Term Care Aides (LTCA). 

“There are requirements, language level requirements, for immigrant clients to get into training,” Aila says, detailing how these tracts are a bit different than the previous bridging programs. “What we realized, from our experience working with clients, is that one of the main issues they’re facing is their language skills. That’s why they can’t get into any of these schools. 

“For example, the Nova Scotia Community College requires Canadian Language Benchmark Level 8 for any immigrant client to get into school and complete a diploma in Early Childhood Education. And the Nova Scotia College of Early Childhood Education requires a Level 7. Even if they have the education and the training, if they don’t have Language Level 7, they can’t even start the recognition of prior learning process with the Department of Early Childhood Education. They can’t even go to school to complete any of the ECE levels.” 

To bridge this gap, ISANS worked with ECE professionals to create a communication program to get clients to the place they need to be in order to start attending school or, if they already have an education in the field, to apply for entry-level work. 

“There are internationally educated Early Childhood Educators who come with their certification and requirements,” Aila says. “They still do not sometimes understand the Canadian workplace culture. The scope of work, talking with parents, etc. The curriculum developed is really focused on all those principals of working…in a Canadian environment. 

“It’s not that we think our clients lack the language skills,” she says. “It’s not the language, it’s communication styles. They could be at a very high language level, but it’s the Canadian culture and the Canadian way of communicating with patients, communicating with children, communicating with parents.” 

Aila says both the IEECE and LTCA programs, the latter of which was propelled in part by the COVID situation and the inequities in LTC it shed light on, are extremely successful. Out of 23 initial IEECE participants, 17 have completed the course and are working with employers. Another 10 of those are either taking courses in ECE at the college level or are about to. LTCA has lead to 14 clients finding employment. 

Aila says there’s still room to create more bridging programs in the future, should the demand for them become evident. However, there are some careers ISANS cannot, as of yet, bridge. 

“There is a need for programs, for medical lab technologists, for example.” Aila says. “The problem for our clients coming into the province is they do not have the exact requirements to work as a medical lab technologist, or to go through the process of certification…most of the immigrants who come to the province, if they are coming from specific countries, have, say, a degree in microbiology or biology or biochemistry, and have work experience as medical lab technologists, which does not qualify them to start the certification process. It’s more than what we can do.” 

But even if a career path a client on is a bridge they cannot build, ISANS has lots of other ways to help them reach the other side of the river. 

“We have an amazing program called the Atlantic Immigrant Career Loan Fund,” Aila says. “They can borrow up to $15,000 with a prime plus one interest rate, and it could really help them in doing anything related to their certification or training. We don’t pay for things funded by student loans. But if they need living expenses, if they need to buy laptops, whatever they need to become successful.” 

Chris Muise

Chris Muise is a Halifax-based freelance writer/editor, and long-time contributor for My Halifax Experience and My East Coast Experience.

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