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Bridging programs help foreign-trained professionals gain accreditation

The programs not only upgrade their academic qualifications but expose immigrants to how their profession is practised in Canada.


Stories abound – and they’re not all apocryphal – of foreign-trained professionals in Canada having to drive a taxi to earn a living. A 2006 survey by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, as the department was then called, found that there were 1,525 taxi drivers in Canada with a master’s degree and 255 with a doctorate or medical degree.

The 2006 Canadian census reveals that occupational underemployment is a significant problem for immigrants. This costs the federal and provincial governments billions of dollars in potential income tax revenues. Four years after their arrival in Canada, the majority of immigrants still work in jobs that are not commensurate with either their education or the jobs they had in their homeland.

Engineering is the most common professional field of study for immigrants to Canada. But, in 2006, only 19 percent of immigrants who graduated in engineering and were employed in Canada were working as engineers, versus 42 percent of Canadian-born individuals who graduated in engineering.

The disparity was even more pronounced in medicine. While 92 percent of Canadian-born individuals who studied medicine were working as doctors in 2006, only 56 percent of immigrants with the same field of study were practising in the profession.

Several Canadian universities offer bridging programs to help foreign-trained professionals – dentists, engineers, pharmacists, teachers and others – overcome barriers to accreditation and integrate successfully into Canadian society. The programs not only upgrade their academic qualifications but expose them to how their profession is practised in Canada.

Marie Bountrogianni, dean of the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University (and former minister of immigration for Ontario), says the bridging programs are both altruistic and good labour-market economics. “It’s unethical to encourage highly educated people to come to this country and then not allow them to practise their profession or a related profession,” she says. “But there’s an economic part as well. As soon as these highly educated new Canadians start working and paying taxes, they add to the prosperity of all of us.” (Over the last decade, Ryerson has had the most enrolments in bridging programs of any university in Ontario.)

University Affairs examined the bridging programs for four different professions at four Canadian universities.

“At first I felt so intimidated by my accent, but I was able to overcome that.”

Jimmy Buena
Education – University of Alberta

Jimmy Buena, 38, has a doctorate of education and taught computer science and mathematics as a university professor for nine years in his native Philippines before he emigrated to Canada in 2009. After settling in Edmonton and gaining permanent resident status, he hoped to teach in the Alberta school system.

Illustrations by Antonio Uve,
Illustrations by Antonio Uve,

Due to a bureaucratic mix-up, however, it took three years for his teaching credentials to be assessed by Alberta Education, which is responsible for teacher certification in the province. “Meanwhile, I worked as a server at a Denny’s restaurant,” he recalls. “It was frustrating.” He wasn’t sure whether he would ever have the opportunity to teach, especially when the professional standards branch of Alberta Education assessed his academic qualifications to be insufficient.

However, the branch referred Dr. Buena to the University of Alberta’s faculty of education, which offers the Internationally Educated Teachers (IET) Bridging Project. Funded with $200,000 annually from Alberta Education, the project provides free tuition for up to 12 IETs a year as they earn from 24 to 30 additional credits to meet provincial standards for certification.

Randolph Wimmer, who co-founded the 12-month program in September 2013 and is now interim dean of the faculty of education, says he is committed to keeping the program going even if provincial funding eventually stops.

“Is it possible to receive a teaching certificate without this bridging program? Yes, absolutely,” he says. “But it’s extraordinarily difficult for people who are new to Canada … to navigate highly bureaucratic systems within universities, school systems and the government. The success rate is very minimal, compared with that of a bridging program.”

The IETs, in addition to the standard coursework, do a nine-week classroom practicum. They also attend a weekly seminar where they “unpack” what they’ve experienced in their placement. “It’s not just a place to vent,” says Dr. Wimmer. “It has academic rigour as well.”

“The practicum was the most valuable part,” says Dr. Buena. “At first I felt so intimidated by my accent and pronunciation, but I was able to overcome that.” The Catholic elementary/junior high school in Edmonton where he did his placement was sufficiently impressed that it hired him as soon as he completed the bridging program in May 2015. He now teaches math, science, health and Tagalog, the Filipino national language (many of the students at his school are of Filipino origin).

The current IET cohort comprises 11 participants from nine countries. Teachers from countries that are culturally similar to Canada, such as the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, are excluded. The program hasn’t yet had to turn away applicants for lack of space. For this summer’s intake, “we had a record 19 interviews for 11 spots, but many are struggling with achieving the English-language proficiency requirements,” says project coordinator Brent McDonough.

An estimated three-quarters of the program’s graduates are now teaching in the Edmonton area. “Some are even approached mid-practicum to see if they might be available for employment,” says Mr. McDonough. “These are serious teachers,” adds Dr. Wimmer. “They’re highly motivated. They have a lot of teaching experience, and it shows. Schools want diversity in their teaching force. They need teachers who speak languages in addition to English and French.”

“ It’s pretty intense, you have to put aside everything for school.”

Maria Fernanda Castro Herrera
Pharmacy – Université de Montréal

Université de Montréal offers a bridging program for foreign-trained pharmacists: the programme de qualification en pharmacie, or QeP. Since the QeP’s inception in 2011-12, a total of 107 candidates have graduated. The current cohort is 35, selected from 121 who applied. The QeP must admit at least 25 participants in order to receive an annual subsidy from Quebec’s Ministère de l’Éducation et de l’enseignement supérieur du Québec.

The program runs 16 months and requires participants to earn up to 64 credits, though the number can be much lower, depending on the assessment of academic qualifications by the Ordre des pharmaciens du Québec (OPQ). The foreign-trained pharmacists on average pay $1,600 in tuition, the same amount per credit that Quebec students pay for U de M’s pharmacy degree program.

The QeP is one of two routes foreign-trained pharmacists can follow to become licensed in Quebec. The other is to pass the country-wide exam administered by the Pharmacy Examining Board of Canada. “Their success rate is not all that high, so a number of candidates decide to apply to the QeP,” says Marie-Claude Vanier, director of the QeP. The QeP itself has an overall success rate of 88 percent.

nov2016-feature-bridgingpharmacy-300QeP internships are provided in hospitals and retail pharmacies. A one-week placement in first year is followed by two eight-week internships in second year. “It’s always a challenge to find enough internships for the students,” says Ms. Vanier. “But what really limits our intake is the number of available laboratory spaces for them to practise.”

Completion of the QeP does not by itself entitle graduates to practise in Quebec. The final step in that process is an internship mandated by the Ordre des pharmaciens. It is both lengthy and unpaid, and the graduates have to find these internships themselves, without help from the Ordre or QeP.

Ever Andres Herrera Cantor, 31, and his wife, Maria Fernanda Castro Herrera, 29, were pharmacists in Colombia for four years before emigrating to Quebec in 2013. They were seeking an improved quality of life and a more patient-oriented practice than was possible in Colombia.

Through his involvement with Colombia’s pharmacists’ council, Mr. Herrera Cantor had met pharmacists from other countries and decided Canada offered the best prospects. “At the time, it was easier and quicker to come to Quebec than to other provinces, and we were familiar with the QeP,” he says.

It took six months to gain the Ordre’s approval to apply for the QeP. Before starting the program in January 2015, the couple managed to find part-time work in their field – he as a technician in a pharmacy, she with a pharmaceutical company – while studying to upgrade the basic-level French they had learned in Colombia.

They’ve found the QeP to be a very demanding but valuable program. “It’s pretty intense, you have to put aside everything for school,” says Ms. Castro Herrera. Still, doing the program as a couple has an advantage, she says. “When one of us doesn’t understand something, the other can help.”

They’re pleased that, unlike the Colombian universities – which emphasize pharmacology, or the study of drugs – the QeP also focuses on pharmacotherapy, the use of drugs for the clinical care of patients.

After completing the QeP, Mr. Herrera Cantor wants to acquire experience and savings as a staff pharmacist, then become a pharmacy owner. Ms. Castro Herrera, for her part, wants to complete her remaining internships before deciding on her career niche.

“ As it was, I was flying solo when I did my job search.”

Adeilton Ribeiro
Engineering – Ryerson University

Ryerson’s faculty of engineering and architectural science has been offering the Internationally Educated Engineers Qualification Bridging (IEEQB) Program for the past decade. The program enables foreign-trained engineers to meet the academic requirements for licensure by Professional Engineers Ontario as a professional engineer in the province.

The IEEQB program initially received dedicated federal and provincial funding, but now relies entirely on faculty resources and tuition fees. It accepts candidates three times a year, averaging 15 to 20 participants at each intake. Participants must first have their academic qualifications assessed by PEO to determine which courses they need.

nov2016-feature-bridgingengineer-300“We don’t offer courses specially designed for the IEEQB,” says Liping Fang, program director. “The internationally educated engineers take courses with our regular students and pay the same tuition [per course] as they do. Each has an individualized study plan.” It takes about a year to complete the program. A 60 percent grade is required to pass each course exam. About 72 percent of candidates have successfully completed the program.

Civil engineering is the most popular of the engineering disciplines among the participants. Once they meet the academic requirements, candidates must satisfy the work experience requirement (48 months, including 12 months of engineering-related work in Canada) and pass PEO’s professional practice exam.

Brazilian-born Adeilton Ribeiro earned a bachelor of civil engineering in Brazil and worked for four years in São Paulo before emigrating to Canada in 2013. “My wife is Canadian,” he says, “and we decided Canada would be a better place to raise a family. Also, it would be easier for me to adapt to Canada compared to her adapting to Brazil.”

While still in Brazil, he contacted PEO and learned which courses he would need to take in Ontario to meet its academic requirements. “The accreditation process was fair and straightforward,” he says. Through an online search, he discovered Ryerson’s IEEQB program.

“The course content was mostly material that I had studied in Brazil,” he says. “The most difficult part was mastering the English-language terminology. I had to refer to some non-course materials for that.” He did six courses, for which tuition was a “pricey” $4,000. During his final three months, he worked part-time as an IT technician for Ryerson’s media studies department.

Mr. Ribeiro, 31, says it would be helpful if the bridging program included internship opportunities. “As it was, I was flying solo when I did my job search.” Still, even before writing his final exams, he applied to several companies and landed a job with AECOM, a multinational civil engineering firm. Since 2014, he has worked as a computer-assisted design drafter, producing civil and architectural drawings for rail and transit projects.

Ryerson also offers bridging programs for doctors, dietitians, social workers and midwives. Its latest is the Internationally Trained Medical Doctors Bridging Program. Launched in January 2015, it has graduated 14 candidates and accepted a second cohort of 14 (out of 150 applicants). The program is not intended to lead directly to licensure as an MD in Canada, says the Chang school’s Dr. Bountrogianni, but rather equips participants for alternative, well-paid jobs in the health sector.

“That said,” she adds, “we know anecdotally from our graduates that it has assisted a number of them in eventually achieving their medical residency because it helped them with the interview, which is very competitive, and with learning Canadian norms.”

“ It’s very scary when you have a family and no career.”

Akeel Al-Dabboos
Dentistry – University of British Columbia

UBC’s faculty of dentistry has, for at least 15 years, run the International Dental Degree Completion Program, or IDDCP. This two-year program leads to the doctor of dental medicine degree, or DMD.

The DMD, however, doesn’t automatically confer the right to practise dentistry in British Columbia. Graduates still must be certified by the National Dental Examining Board of Canada and licensed by the College of Dental Surgeons of British Columbia. (They also must have citizenship or permanent residency.)

For the current IDDCP cohort, which graduates in 2017, the program had 99 applicants, interviewed 29 and accepted seven. The usual cohort is no larger than 12 candidates. Dean of dentistry Charles Shuler says all of the program’s graduates have gotten licenses.

The program is funded by the dentistry faculty, which charges foreign trained dentists over $80,000 a year (about 50 percent higher than domestic students). Most of the immigrant dentists take out student loans of $250,000 each to cover tuition and living costs, using their future career prospects as “collateral.”

nov2016-feature-bridgingdentist-300 Akeel Al-Dabboos, who graduated in 2013 from the IDDCP, says that, despite the cost, participating in the program was worth it. “I’d encourage anyone to go through the program. It saves you the hassle of trying to do [the accreditation process] on your own.”

(Internationally-trained dentists no longer have to do the IDDCP as a condition of licensure; as of four years ago, they can instead sit the National Dental Examining Board’s “challenge exam.”)

“The most valuable aspect for the immigrant dentists [in the IDDCP] is learning how we do dentistry in Canada,” says Dr. Shuler. “In some countries, dentists do fewer crowns and bridges and more extractions. In Canada, we believe in saving teeth. Also, there’s a lot of discussion around the need for informed consent from the patient.”

Dr. Dabboos, 47, came to Canada with his wife and three children from war-torn Iraq, settling first in London, Ontario. He applied to dental programs at Western and Dalhousie universities before being accepted at UBC. Before getting in, his future was “a big question mark,” he recalls. “It’s very scary when you have a family and no career.”

Once in the program, he liked UBC’s emphasis on the practical rather than theory. “More than half the time, we were involved with the dental clinic, treating people.” Since graduating and gaining a license, Dr. Dabboos has returned to Ontario, where he practised first in Hamilton, then bought an existing dental practice in Barrie.

While the individuals profiled above are success stories, the graduates of bridging programs amount to only a fraction of the foreign-trained professionals seeking accreditation in Canada. For the rest, the taxi meter is still running.

Sheldon Gordon
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