ICTC Overviews summarize findings from full-length studies. To read the original report, visit it here.

Study Scope

This report investigates how to enhance newcomer participation in Alberta’s digital economy.

The report includes:

  • Labour demand among Alberta’s digital economy employers
  • Supply of available talent among newcomers
  • Six challenges newcomers face to participation in Alberta’s digital economy (unrelated to skills mismatches)
  • Potential solutions to each challenge
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Study Context

Alberta’s economy is historically cyclical due to its outsized petroleum sector and has consequently faced challenges since the collapse of the oil and gas prices in 2014.

Alberta’s digital economy, on the other had, has offered quality employment opportunities even during the COVID-19 pandemic. From February 2020 to August 2021, employment in Alberta’s digital economy grew by 9.4%, compared to a decline of 0.7% in the overall economy.

Alberta’s digital economy is expected to continue growing even as oil and gas prices trend upward. Recent ICTC research findings anticipate that employment in Alberta’s digital economy will reach 203,000 by 2025

Continued growth of Alberta’s digital economy faces a lack of skilled talent. To meet the sector’s growth potential, all sources of talent will be needed—new graduates, workforce transitioners, and newcomers.

Key Findings

Stronger participation of international newcomers to Alberta’s digital economy is important and could be improved through:

  • Better mechanisms for assessing international credentials, skills, and competencies
  • More inclusive hiring practices
  • Access to both technical and soft skills upskilling programs

Study Findings

Alberta anticipates a significant rebound from the pandemic, with the digital economy playing a significant role.

Comprising over 3,000 companies, Alberta’s digital economy is growing. The sector has seen strong growth, led by “unicorn” companies like Benevity Inc. and NeoFinancial (both having raised substantial funds from international investors).

Over half of Alberta tech companies are in the scaling stage of development, which requires hiring additional staff.

  • However, a recent survey by Digital Alberta found that 42% of tech companies identified the lack of skilled personnel as the biggest challenge for their industry
  • Many companies cited a particular need for midlevel and senior-level talent.

Roles Employers Seek

ICTC’s report A Digital Future for Alberta identified top-in-demand digital roles across the economy in two categories:

  • Software developers (including full stack developers and software engineers) and data scientists
  • More customer or sales-oriented work, such as technical sales, IT support, customer support, and business intelligence
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Key technical skills needed in Alberta’s Digital sector include:

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Beyond Technical Skills, Soft Skills Are Important

Soft Skills are also in high demand by employers.

“I’d say soft skills account for 60–70% of my hiring decision.” —Anonymous employer Interviewee

Numerous dimension soft skills were noted by interviewees:

  • “Subtleties of language”
  • Patience, flexibility, openness,
  • Collaboration skills, critical thinking, independence
  • Understanding of business context

“[New hires] need the ability to respectfully challenge authority— critical thinking and independence are really important. We need people to try things without waiting for permission.” —Interviewee

Alberta’s Immigration Trends

Alberta is home to about 845,000 immigrants (about one in five Albertans)

About a quarter (or 208,000) are classified as “recent immigrants,” having arrived in the last five years.

Approximately two-thirds of immigrants admitted to Alberta are economic immigrants (who are permitted to immigrate to Canada based on their labour market skills or assessed suitability for Canada’s economy).

Immigration to Alberta grew steadily between the early 2000’s and 2015.

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Immigration to Alberta is concentrated in its largest cities.

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Newcomers Are Overeducated and Underemployed

Newcomers typically arrive in Canada with strong educational credentials and experience.

  • 45% hold a bachelor’s degree (compared to only 25% of Canadian-born)
  • Immigrants hold master’s or doctorate degrees at twice the rate of the Canadian population

Under the “express entry” pathway to citizenship—intended for skilled immigrants—approximately 90% of candidates have post-secondary degrees, and nearly 40% have five or more years of foreign work experience.

Despite high levels of education, immigrants are often underemployed when compared to their Canadian-born peers.

Key Challenges to Newcomer Employment

Challenge 1: Requirements for Canadian Experience

Lack of Canadian experience has been identified as a top barrier to employment for newcomers. Unrecognized foreign credentials are estimated to contribute to a net loss of $13.4 to $17 billion in Canadian earnings.

To remedy the issue in so far as ensuring qualifications are assessed fairly, Bill 11, The Fair Registration Practices Act, came into law in Alberta in 2020, however, it is still too early to tell if the bill will make a positive impact for newcomers.

Potential solutions:
  • Experience does not always have to include paid work experience. Local experiences can also include:
    • enrolling in a bridging program
    • completing courses
    • taking volunteer positions in Canada
  • The requirement for Canadian experience can be viewed as proof of soft skills or business skills, including language proficiency and understanding Canadian workplace culture. Some newcomers therefore take lower-paid or lower-skilled jobs for a short period, to develop these skills.
  • Advocates for newcomers suggest that companies need to reorient hiring practices to improve inclusivity and recognize international credentials, skills, and training.

Challenge 2: Newcomers Networking, Making Connections, and Searching for Jobs

Newcomers reported struggling with the process of networking and identifying opportunities.

A World Education Services survey of more than 6000 immigrants to Canada, nearly half (48.5%) cited a “lack of professional connections” as a barrier to employment.

COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated some of the difficulties already facing newcomers to Canada, as face-to-face meetings became rare.

Potential Solutions
  • Newcomers pivoted their networking efforts online, however, additional online networking support could help newcomers improve their online etiquette, digital portfolio, and stand out from others.
  • Many newcomers said that immigrant services organizations were helpful in networking.
  • Immediate community, family, religious or cultural associations, and friends can help navigate the Canadian job search.
  • Volunteering was mentioned by both employers and newcomers as an effective way to expand one’s network.

Challenge 3: The Application and Interview Process

Canadian standards and expectations when applying for jobs are not always clear to newcomers. Some newcomers and employers may be a perfect match, but the application and interview process can pose significant barriers.

Standards for resumes and cover letters vary from country to country. Research suggests that immigrants sometimes downgrade their experience, education, and qualifications when writing cover letters and resumes after being advised to only include immediately relevant information, thus discounting varied valuable experience, or experience that they thought employers might not understand.

Pre-screening interviews can be challenging, for example, when responding to questions about salary expectations.

Some newcomers are surprised with the attention given to personal experience (as distinct from work experience) in interviews. Others had difficulty with behavioural questions.

Potential Solutions
  • Employers can ensure inclusive hiring practices, based on ability to perform while minimizing bias through
    • consistency in interview questions
    • asking how interviewees would apply their skills
    • writing job descriptions that do not use jargon
    • writing job descriptions that ask for ability rather than experience
    • ensuring job postings are inclusive of underrepresented groups
    • providing mentoring opportunities
    • providing training that is presented in multiple formats.
  • Newcomers should take the time to tailor their job applications to specific roles, rather than canvassing multiple available jobs with a general resume and cover letter.
  • Soft skills” are often learnable. Immigrant services organizations and upskilling initiatives can assist newcomers in this area 

Challenge 4: Confusing Soft Skills with “Culture Fit”

Increased remote work has companies hiring more carefully, often emphasizing soft skills. Yet it is important to note the complex interplay between what is considered a soft skill and in-depth understanding of Canadian workplace norms and expectations—a distinction that is often challenging for someone who has not worked in Canada.

“Culture fit” can sometimes be more explicitly connected to race, language skills, the ability to develop strong relationships with colleagues and clients, which are highly valued in the Canadian marketplace. Foreign names and foreign credentials can be the subject of unconscious bias or beliefs that newcomers may not possess the qualities needed to “fit in.”

Potential Solutions
  • Many of the basics of inclusive hiring processes can also be used to reduce instances of discrimination related to perceptions of “culture fit.”
  • To avoid conflating soft skills with “culture fit,” employers should develop interview questions or exercises designed specifically for soft skills assessment.
  • Onboarding can be used as a mechanism for understanding company culture.

Challenge 5: Salary Negotiation and Accepting the Job Offer

Many newcomers feel pressured to take the first job offered to them, particularly if they are moving through temporary and probationary immigrant status before they can apply for permanent residence.

Accepting unstable, part-time, or poorly paid jobs may contribute to unhealthy immigrant integration strategies that can have “long-term negative consequences for Canadian society as a whole,” such as entrenching low-pay practices for racialized groups and immigrants.

Newcomers may also suffer from poor wage negotiations, leading some to questioning if they negotiated a reasonable salary.

Potential Solutions
  • There has been a growing call to publish salary ranges on job postings, which can reduce inequity and help newcomers better understand available alternatives when they are offered a role.
  • Immigrant support organizations are critical in providing newcomers with information about Canadian expectations for negotiations.

Challenge 6: Upskilling Needs

Upskilling is one way internationally educated professionals may both improve their employability and earn some Canadian experience.

A growing appetite for upskilling is partly due to the pandemic, which incented employees to become more effective at working online and using digital technologies.

Upskilling programs need to be accessible and, in some situations, targeted to newcomers.

Upskilling initiatives should be developed in collaboration with industry partners so that participants gain relevant skills.

Potential Solutions

Skills development programs to improve newcomer employability take aim at understanding

  • Canadian business culture
  • English language and corporate communication
  • Career development such as interviewing and resume preparation
  • Sales, customer service, partnerships

Canada has seen numerous successful upskilling initiatives, including

  • Lighthouse Labs (technical upskilling bootcamps)
  • Palette Inc. (cybersecurity and sales upskilling)
  • Edge Up (retrains displaced oil and gas workers)
  • ADaPT (skills development and work placement for recent graduates)
  • ICTCs GO Talent (helps prepare newcomers with tech skills for work in Canada)
  • NPower (training for unemployed and underemployed youth)

Albertan companies are beginning to support immigrant upskilling with the help of Immigrant Services Calgary and other Calgary-based businesses developing upskilling programs.

ICTC Overviews summarize findings from full-length studies. To read the original report, visit it here