“I know from my own experience what people go through as newcomers. While fighting for successful immigrant integration, I am fighting for myself as well.” This is how an immigrant settlement worker described her reasons for seeking employment in the settlement sector. And it is a feeling shared by many other professionals working in the sector who are trained abroad in areas other than settlement work.
Reasons for Entering the Settlement Sector
As a matter of fact, our survey and interviews with such professionals in the Ontario immigrant- and refugee-serving sector found that only a small minority felt that they became settlement workers out of necessity, that is, after having failed to find a job in their primary professions. A large group placed heavy emphasis on altruism. They wanted to help newcomers by using their personal experiences in coming to and settling in Canada and/or to give back to the ethno-cultural or broader community.
Another group, comparable in size to the one emphasizing altruism, made a connection with their primary professions in pursuing settlement work. They saw their role as settlement workers as an extension of their pre-immigration main line of work in terms of education, experience, or interest. As one medical doctor put it, “I am helping people at the clinic and I am helping people here. So, to me, I am doing the same thing. I am helping people.”
Given their altruistic motives and their justification of settlement work as primary or near-primary profession, the overwhelming majority of the respondents are satisfied with the work they do in a sector defined by low pay, lack of benefits, job insecurity, and part-time employment (often, for work of full time). The most commonly cited reason was, again, the opportunity to help newcomers settle in Canada, which, as one respondent put it, is “pay it forward.” “Putting a smile on a client’s face” was cited frequently in this context. Other reasons include use of education, degree, and transferrable skills; professional development and promotion opportunities; gaining a new experience; and opportunity for employment.
However, there are mixed feelings even among those who believe they are practicing their primary professions in settlement work. Many take comfort in the fact that they are able to use their professional or analytical skills in serving newcomers; however, many also show signs of misgiving about their professional journey. The following quote summarizes this ambivalence: “My mind is always in teaching. Though I assess adult immigrants for their English in order to be placed in proper levels in a LINC program, and it is related to education … my passion [still lies] in the teaching field.”
Rebuilding Professional Lives
In one respect, immigrant employment in the settlement service sector is an individual professional rebuilding (or re-professionalization) strategy in response to the lack of access to their desired professions. After calculating the cost of getting back to their original fields, many immigrant professionals decide that it is not worth trying and thus opt for another profession that is less costly to pursue. Many others reach the same conclusion after failed attempts. Some practice the “second profession” to avoid complete de-professionalization or to provide a bridge to the original profession.
In pursuing settlement work as a second profession, immigrants are also engaged in identity maintenance or reconstruction. For them, one of the building blocks of self is identification with a profession and a professional community. That identification has come to define who they are and where they are located in relation to others. Facing the prospect of identity loss and its possible destructive consequences, they turn to other avenues to find meaning again in their work lives. This is where the settlement service sector emerges as a credible and familiar alternative because these professionals have already been there, seeking help for their settlement and employment needs.
Contributing to the Development of Settlement Work
In another respect, immigrant employment in the settlement service sector is a systemic response to the professional development needs of settlement work. The immigrant labour force makes a significant contribution to the professionalization of settlement work in three ways. First, all foreign-born and -trained settlement workers have a first-hand experience in immigration and settlement, which enables them to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of these processes. Second, many were involved in leadership and capacity building with their ethno-cultural communities before moving to the sector. Some continue to do so. Third, most of the settlement workers with an immigrant or refugee background were practising (mostly) another profession before coming to Canada, as our sample demonstrates. The transferable skills and norms that come with it contribute greatly to the vocational ethos of settlement work.
However, there is a paradoxical development here. On the one hand, immigrants of vastly different professional backgrounds flock to the relatively permeable settlement service sector in the absence of other opportunities for meaningful employment and, in so doing, contribute greatly to the development of settlement work. On the other hand, professionalization is likely to lift the status of settlement work and, consequently, making it a less permeable occupation with clear boundaries, entry rules, and performance measures.
This development is bound to bring back the issue of access to professions for people of immigrant and refugee background.
Adnan Türegün is the Director of CERIS and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Sociology, York University. This article draws on research reported in CERIS Working Paper “What Do Immigrants Do When They Can’t Practise Their Professions? Immigrant Professionals in the Ontario Settlement Service Sector.”