by Amy Stupavsky
As an executive managing fraud detection solutions for global firms, Sonja Schindeler has spent a fair amount of time in taxis.
While in them, she would often talk to the drivers, many of whom were new immigrants. Listening to their stories, she was struck by a common refrain: Many had been trained as engineers in their native countries, but their credentials didn’t qualify them to continue their careers in Canada. They drove cabs to make ends meet, and to give their families a chance at having a good life in their adopted land.
Schindeler and her husband, Rick Hrga, himself an immigrant who knows firsthand what it is like to struggle for acceptance in a new country, decided that a better way might be to offer a new opportunity for foreign-trained engineers to succeed in Canada.
“I met so many people working hard to give their kids an education, often sacrificing their own professional dreams,” says Schindeler. “While they often had to work at menial jobs, they were so tremendously proud when they talked about their kids being able to go to university. It was heart-wrenching to hear what these people gave up to help their families. That’s when Rick and I started thinking about what we could do to help.”
In June 2017, the couple made a future bequest to York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering to establish the Sonja Schindeler and Rick Hrga Fund for Internationally Educated Engineers. The gift will enable foreign-qualified engineers to get the specific training they need to ensure their academic and professional credentials meet Canadian engineering licensing requirements.
“At Lassonde we recognize that great engineers do not possess technical skill alone, rather they are creative thinkers of broad perspectives and varying backgrounds,” says Interim Dean Richard Hornsey. “By bringing the next generation of diverse, internationally trained engineers to Canada, this generous gift will allow our graduates to have an even greater impact on the world.”
While the fund’s specific structure remains fluid, its programming will be aimed at mature students, and will provide the flexibility they require to juggle work, family and training. Outreach programs will help promote the fund and study opportunities to newcomers. Depending on the students’ needs, the funds can provide participants with technology and personal equipment, tuition assistance, housing accommodation, scholarships, meal plans and mentorship to begin their journeys and to map their careers in Canada.
“We felt there should be an opportunity for everyone, including immigrants with children, to realize their dreams of success for themselves and their families,” Schindeler says. “We want to take parental sacrifice out of the equation so everyone can maximize their true potential, not just the next generation.”
Engineering is a regulated profession in Canada. To become an engineer, individuals need to obtain a licence – a professional engineer (PEng) designation – from their provincial or territorial engineering association by fulfilling certain academic, language, ethics and work-experience requirements.
Many foreign-qualified engineers arriving in Canada encounter obstacles in finding an engineering career. According to Engineers Canada, a national industry support organization, internationally trained engineers often arrive to the country without fully understanding the licence requirements and application process, which in some cases can take up to five years.
Although the applicant can still work in engineering during this time – with supervision from a professional engineer – it can be difficult to secure a position without Canadian work experience. Add in language barriers and the need to find immediate work to support a family, and it’s no surprise that foreign-trained engineers must take jobs that don’t align with their level of education.
Yet, foreign-qualified engineers make significant – and essential – contributions to Canada’s engineering workforce. In 2016, just over 30 per cent of newly licensed engineers were internationally trained. In some jurisdictions, labour market shortages make finding skilled professionals difficult without foreign-trained professionals coming to Canada.
“When we consider the skills required to fill the senior positions of retiring or promoted engineers, recent graduates may not be prepared to fill these mid- and late-career roles,” says Brent Gibson, practice lead, communication, for Engineers Canada. “Individuals with engineering experience from outside of Canada may be well positioned to fill these roles.”
This narrative hits close to home for Schindeler and Hrga – and is one of the reasons they chose to support foreign-educated engineers.
Hrga came to Canada from Austria in 1958 at the age of 19 with $40 in his pocket. He trained in mechanical engineering at a technical school in Vienna, but after immigrating to Ontario, he worked as a manual labourer in various industries. Later, he became a lab technician for an appliance control manufacturer where he was soon promoted to the engineering department.
While working, Hrga attended school part-time to improve his English and academic qualifications, enrolling at York’s Atkinson College as a mature student. Soon after, he started an electric motor manufacturing company, which was later acquired by Magna International. At Magna, Hrga rose quickly through the ranks to become a group president.
It’s a true immigrant struggle and success story, and it has inspired Hrga to want to help other newcomer professionals get ahead in Canada.
“I’ve always had an appreciation for people who’ve devoted their careers to the engineering discipline. It’s worked out well for me, but it was difficult to get here – coming to Canada, not speaking English and working my way up,” Hrga says.
“I’d like to link our fund to what I had to go through, and make it just a bit easier for new engineer immigrants to succeed.”