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Career Changes and Identity Loss

Friday | September 23, 2016 | by Elena Fenrick

Career Changes and Identity Loss

Immigrating to a new country can open up new opportunities for skilled immigrants and internationally trained professionals, but it can also disrupt career growth. This disruption can cause immigrants to experience “professional identity loss.” Occupation, nature of work, level of responsibility, salary, and stability of work are likely to change after immigration. Adapting to these changes while maintaining a positive self-image can be difficult at times. This article will explore how immigrants can overcome career-related identity loss, and will also discuss how creating action plans can help immigrants take a more active role in rebuilding their identities in Canada.

Barriers to Employment for Immigrants

Even immigrants who remain in the same sector after moving to a new country will have a different professional experience compared to when they were working in their original country. Dealing with barriers to employment might be a surprising and frustrating experience, especially for immigrants who enjoyed a high level of career success before immigrating.

In Canada, certain professions are regulated and require immigrants to have their credentials assessed and recognized. In some cases, credentials outside of Canada are not considered to be equal in Canada. Therefore, you may need to pursue additional education. Even when credentials are equal, immigrants may still struggle to find relevant work. Returning to school to reach the same education level held previously can be expensive and time-consuming, especially for immigrants who have financial responsibilities to their families. As a result, many immigrants seek new careers instead.

Unfortunately, immigrants may also face barriers in the hiring process. Some employers may not understand how international education and expertise relates to the Canadian context. There is still a lot of work to be done to equip employers with the tools and knowledge to hire teams that include immigrant employees. For example, the way one communicates with others is often linked to cultural norms. Differences in these cultural norms can be misinterpreted by both employers and job seekers, leading to confusion and misunderstandings.

Having a network of local professionals is also useful for finding employment opportunities. Newcomers have had less time than long-term residents to create strong, local networks, and this can be another barrier to overcome. These kinds of barriers can lead to underemployment of skilled immigrants.


Individuals are “underemployed” when their skills and abilities are not fully utilized in the work that they do. Identity loss is often linked to underemployment. People are generally more satisfied in jobs where they are able to participate, contribute, and advance. General examples of underemployment include:

  • People who are working in “survival jobs” that are far away from their original careers, i.e., low-wage, entry-level work.
  • People who have entry-level or middle management positions in their fields, but their identities are tied to director- or executive-level positions.
  • People who pursue new careers that they do not enjoy because the jobs do not align with their identities.

Facing employment barriers can leave immigrants with unclear pictures of their professional identities. What can someone do to get around these barriers while rebuilding identity, confidence, and hope?

Active Career Advancement Project

The Active Career Advancement Project (ACAP) supports immigrants in gaining alternative employment that reflects their knowledge, skills, and experiences. The project also supports and assists employers who hire, develop, and retain immigrants. ACAP is a federally funded pilot project operated by S.U.C.C.E.S.S., with offices in both Vancouver and the Greater Toronto Area.

As a Career Navigation Consultant with the Active Career Advancement Project, I work with internationally trained professionals as they explore alternative career options. Each day, I see clients find innovative ways to rebuild their identities in Canada.

Career Competencies

ACAP’s group-based training and one-on-one meetings are grounded in the academic research of Norman Amundson, Roberta Neault, and Spencer Niles. In their book, Career Flow: A Hope-Centered Approach to Career Development, they describe the importance of the following competencies: hope, self-reflection, self-clarity, visioning, goal setting and planning, and implementing and adapting. Some people naturally excel in a few competency areas but could benefit from improvement in other areas. This approach can be personalized to each client’s circumstances and begins with self-reflection and self-clarity before taking action to understand their skills and values. By enhancing career flow competencies, career-focused immigrants can carve out their identities with enthusiasm and purpose. The tips listed below are a compilation of strategies that clients seem to find most beneficial for gaining greater control over their career growth.

Tip #1: Find a Supportive Group

Being part of a supportive group, and having a place to share experiences and discuss new ideas, is a valuable method of rebuilding hope. Brainstorming viable alternative career options is easier for people who have self-clarity and who have identified the skills that they can transfer from job-to-job.

One of the most exciting parts of my work as a Career Navigation Consultant is hearing clients form new goals and plans. I have seen how discussing ideas out loud can have life-changing results (some clients have even launched their own businesses!). Having the support of others (family, friends, coworkers, common-interest groups, counsellors, etc.), is important for moving forward career-wise because they can provide feedback, advice, inspiration, and motivation.

Tip #2: Create an Action Plan

One of the most important conversations that I have with clients is about how they keep track of their career plan. At the end of the group-based training sessions, clients create a one-page action plan to guide their next few months. Having a digital document, a physical notebook, or even a corkboard or whiteboard is highly recommended to track progress, set deadlines, and save crucial information in a systematic way. Some clients use digital documents split into categories, such as

jobs to apply for, people to network with, skills to build, education options, and family responsibilities.

Time is a barrier for many of the clients whom I work with. Other barriers, such as long commutes to work, caring for children, and managing health concerns also distract from their career search progress. By keeping track of these competing tasks, clients are able to base their plans around time constraints (example: researching education options while on the bus).

Tip #3: Adapt to the Labour Market and Continue to Build Skills

Building career competencies by creating strategies that prepare for labour market barriers can help job seekers take a more active role in adapting to labour market changes. Labour market information can be gathered through online research and speaking with people who are currently working in a sector.

Informational interviews or mock interviews are great practice for real interviews and can help immigrants expand their networks (they might even find a mentor in the process!). By improving on self-reflection and self-clarity, job seekers can more clearly communicate their goals when interacting with helpful contacts or potential employers.


When a job seeker approaches their career search in a positive, proactive, and constructive way, the likelihood that they will build a satisfying professional identity is increased. Choosing an alternative career path takes time and effort, and may involve upgrading skills, attending events, changing job search methods, etc. The process of actively shaping one’s identity, by taking control of what can be controlled and adjusting to what cannot, can help to grow both confidence and hope.

Elena Fenrick

Elena Fenrick is a Career Navigation Consultant at Active Career Advancement Project in Toronto.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).