Many people experience career interruptions at some point in their lives. But the interruptions that result from immigrating to other countries involve entirely different challenges.
The move to a new country requires skilled migrants to make decisions not just about work but also about their family’s needs and their overall well-being as newcomers. It’s very common for them to be forced into sacrificing their careers in order to work in their new home, especially if their credentials are deemed not transferrable.
A pediatrician, for example, may take on a job as an ultrasound technician, or a teacher may instead take a job as a caregiver to the elderly.
While some countries — like Canada, for example — rate highly for their appeal to skilled migrants, settling still poses major career barriers. One of the major paradoxes that skilled migrants face is that despite gaining entry into a host country based on their credentials (for example, accumulated foreign capital), that doesn’t guarantee success in the local labour market.
In our quantitative study, we examine how skilled migrants cope with this problem and the strategies they use to deal with career sacrifice.
Seeking a better life
Motivations for migration vary, but many people migrate with their families seeking better opportunities for their children and a better quality of life. Upon arrival, they learn that many of their career expectations may not materialize, and they must rethink how to re-establish themselves and make sense of the new situation.
Often, many of these professionals will end up underemployed. That means they take jobs that are lower quality and dissatisfying since their career prospects don’t match their expertise. They often experience some type of career sacrifice in the hope of providing opportunities and a better life for their families.
Our study shows that to improve their chances of finding quality employment, migrants must engage in career self-management. This involves weighing the pros and cons of various career options and carefully planning the next steps in their career, while at the same time learning about their new situation and any potential career barriers in the job market where they’ll be looking for employment.
It requires hard work in the absence of any organizational support structures, and it means migrants must become active career agents for themselves.
Our research illustrates that migrants who are proactive and engage in career self-management may have better chances of finding quality work that aligns with their expertise. One of the most important ways to do this is to engage in career planning in their new country. Even though some city-based settlement programs and agencies may help during career planning, those efforts are largely left to the job-seekers themselves.
Learning new routines
While skilled migrants are often experienced job-seekers, they must learn new career routines that are characteristic of their new local working environment. That means understanding the unspoken rules and norms that are common in their new labour market and adjusting their career goals and strategies accordingly. These may vary from learning new networking routines and even how to engage in informal work conversations.
It also involves weighing the pros and cons of various career options and understanding what type of sacrifice, if any, they’ll have to make to secure local employment and restart their careers.
This kind of analysis may require them to give up some parts of their work routines and redefine their professional lives, but they can also gain new knowledge and networks. Once they’re in the midst of this major transition, often characterized by career sacrifice, our study found that supportive social networks play a big role in successful employment.
Newcomers leave behind their established social networks and relationships when they migrate to a new country. So support in their adopted home is critically important to helping them explore local job options and pursue new careers.
Career planning is critical
Finally, contrary to popular wisdom about more job searches leading to better outcomes, we conclude with somewhat different advice.
Based on our findings, it may not be the intensity of someone’s job search, but instead the type and quality of their career planning that may matter more when it comes to finding quality employment.
Skilled migrants may have to let go of aspects of their original career path and sacrifice some of their professional goals and plans. But proactive approach to job searches, social support and engaging in specific career planning activities from the start can help them succeed. This could involve making connections and reaching out to local organizations and employers even before they arrive.
This can give newcomers a realistic preview of employment prospects even before they leave their native country, and can create more realistic expectations — and perhaps even result in a lesser degree of career sacrifice once they arrive.
By Jelena Zikic
Associate Professor, School of Human Resource Management, York University, Canada
Full Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology, University of Giessen
Jelena Zikic receives funding from Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada (SSHRC)
Ute-Christine Klehe does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.