Immigrating: The Trade-Off

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Moving to a new country is scary. You’re leaving behind your family, your friends and whatever business network you established in your homeland. It also means that you are leaving behind other familiar things, like the ability to go to a sporting event and cheer on your favourite cricket or soccer team. It is surprising how important it can be to your mental well-being simply to go to a movie in your first language, or go out for dinner in comfortable surroundings where you can enjoy familiar foods and to talk to other people who share your culture and knowledge of your homeland – from homegrown musicians to politics.

So, it only makes sense to settle in a place where there is something familiar – like a fragment of your network, in the form of family or friends you can talk to, get advice from and fall back on. Your confidence can grow within a community of people who speak your first language and share your enthusiasm for your favourite sports teams or television shows. At the very least, you want to shop for the foods you grew up with, find an appropriate place of worship where you can practice your faith, find new cds by your favourite musicians, and shop for the clothing or other products you feel comfortable with.

Everybody Does It

The formation of ethnic communities is a well documented trend. These communities act as magnets for newcomers settling in Canada. It is human nature to settle in areas that offer the strongest support networks.

As ethnic populations in large cities grow, the larger cultural communities build their own infrastructures. Stores, supermarkets, shopping centers, and places of worship spring up to serve the growing population; and in turn, more people of the same ethnicity decide to settle within those communities because of the access to services available in their first language, and because of the presence of family and friends who have already settled and established roots within the community. The presence of the familiar makes the difficult process of immigration much easier.

Largely for this reason, the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) becomes home to nearly half of the immigrants coming to Canada. A Statistics Canada study released in January 2008 (“Immigrants in the Hinterlands”, you can read the full article here) shows that 75 percent of newcomers settle in either Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal.

Since Canada’s population is spread across such a vast region, most Canadian cities are very small by international standards. The size of the ethnic communities are not just smaller in proportion to the size of the cities, they are also smaller because most immigrants give in to the attraction to the bigger cities. The study showed that only 3 percent of immigrants settle in small towns or rural areas.

The Downside of City Living

The larger the population, the greater the competition. The following statistics are not accurate. They were invented simply to illustrate the point we are making.

Imagine that in 2011, Canada determines that there are 15,000 vacancies in the engineering field in the country and actively seek out immigrants with the appropriate background. Let’s say that the recruitment effort actually results in 15,000 engineers immigrating to Canada.

But employment statistics are national in scope. Many, or perhaps even most, of the opportunities exist in small cities and towns across the country. So it’s likely that as few as 4,000 of those jobs would be available in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

Because of the attraction of the ethnic communities, it is likely that as many as 7,500 of those newcomers with engineering backgrounds will end up settling in the GTA. If 3,000 Canadian trained engineering graduates were competing against them, that would leave jobs for a fraction of those immigrants with engineering backgrounds.

Perhaps 2,000 would keep looking and find jobs in their field within a few years. But in the end, it is quite conceivable as many as 4,000 of them will be forced to retrain and change careers. Some will return to their country of origin, convinced and upset that Canada recruited them for jobs that do not exist. Many will end up taking survival jobs. And since people who stay too long in those jobs often get trapped by the need to keep providing income for their families, they will continue to work as taxi drivers or store clerks or short order cooks for the rest of their working lives. Some will rise to management positions in their new occupations, but few will ever reach the salary that they would have realized if they had found jobs in their fields.

Meanwhile, 4,000 of the engineering opportunities in places like Estevan, Saskatchewan and Kenora, Ontario will remain unfilled. The 3,000 newcomers who are willing to settle outside of the major cities will have their choice of jobs and the vast majority of them will become well-employed and will be able to use their Canadian experience to move back to the big cities in a few years if they choose to do so.

The Statistics Canada study shows that 37 percent of immigrants who settle in major cities like Toronto will initially earn less than the Canadian average. After four years, the gap closes to 22 percent, but even after 12 years, 10 percent of those immigrants will still be earning less than the national average.

In smaller cities the initial gap of 14 percent disappeared by the fourth year. You may be surprised to learn that those immigrants who settle outside of the major cities actually make 2 percent more than the Canadian average after four years and after 11 years immigrants make 18 percent more than the Canadian average.

The article states that, “The income advantage of immigrants was even more pronounced in small towns and rural areas, where the average income of immigrants was 4 percent higher than that of Canadians after only one year of permanent residence.”

The Solution is Not as Simple as it Seems

If you move away from the large cities, you stand a much better chance of finding a job in your field and of reaching your employment and salary expectations. So why don’t more people do it?

Culture shock and homesickness can make life difficult even for people who settle in their own ethnic communities. Imagine settling in a place where almost no one speaks your first language. There may not be a mosque or temple where you can worship. The nearest restaurant or food store that sells foods and spices you love may be hundreds of miles away. Your nearest friends outside of your immediate family may be thousands of miles away. Your wife or husband may not be able to find a job of any kind, let alone one in their field of expertise. These stresses can tear at the fabric of your family and make life unbearably lonely.

So it really is a trade-off. If you can withstand the stresses of separation from everything you hold dear – even for a year or two – this country can offer enormous potential and almost unlimited opportunity. There’s a good chance you will eventually grow to love your new community. After all, when the immigrants settled in Canada for most of the past few hundred years, there was no choice but to live with your decision to leave your old life behind, and millions of people thrived in their new surroundings.

But in our modern times, you can stay in contact with your personal network on the internet and by telephone. You can order goods and services online and have them delivered to you. You can subscribe to a satellite or internet service and watch tv programs, movies and sporting events in your first language. You can jump on a plane and visit your family back home or relatives who have settled in other parts of Canada. And, if worst comes to worst, you can quit the new job and take your chances in the big city.

But before you settle for that survival job, or get discouraged and depressed by the lack of opportunity where you are, it would be wise to spread your wings and take a chance. Rather than trying to sink your roots into the cracks in the concrete and asphalt, open your mind and look around. Canada is a very big country, and the path to a wonderful future may take you through the fertile ground that lies outside of the big cities.

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