After Neeru Verma, 30, graduated with a diploma in applied business management at the University of Manitoba, things got challenging around finding work—and not just for herself, but also her husband.
When she was an international student, Verma’s husband was eligible for an open work permit tied to her student visa. But after she graduated, the terms for his work permit changed. In order to continue working in Canada, he needed a new work permit—which was now contingent on Verma landing a specific job.
“My spouse would get a work permit [only] if I had a NOC code 0, A, or B job,” Verma says, referring to the National Occupational Classification system, known as NOC, which categorizes occupations based on skill level and type.
Unless Verma landed a job under the NOC 0, A or B categories, her husband would be unable to get a new work permit—forcing him to switch to a visitor visa or return to their home city of Nabha, in the Indian state of Punjab.
Verma says the requirement places new international graduates in a vulnerable position.
“I’d have to find someone who can give me that job offer—he or she would exploit me by paying me less and asking me to work more,” she says. “I would have to [do the] work because I’d need the job offer—and my employer knows that.”
The hierarchy of occupational systems
The NOC skill levels range from A to D—A requiring a university degree and D requiring no formal education—and occupational types such as management and finance (identified by numbers 0 and 1), arts and culture (5), sales and services (6), and manufacturing (9).
“Zero, A and B are upper levels in the hierarchy,” says Eva Jansen, who holds a doctorate from the University of Toronto’s faculty of information. One of Jansen’s research interests is the social implications of information systems, such as the NOC.
Because of their positions in the hierarchy, jobs with the NOC codes 0, A and B are few and far between, she says. “It’s a very complex thing. When you’re at these higher levels in the Canadian labour market, you have less positions at those levels.”
The challenge is amplified when the NOC system does not recognize international education qualifications and credentials, leading many to become overeducated and underemployed.
This is a conversation that immigration lawyer Aminder Kaur Mangat has with many international students. Some of whom are not aware of the changes in work permit requirements.
“The spouse is sort of stuck. And a lot of recent graduates are like, ‘we can’t get a NOC B job,’ and the spouse ends up having to transition to a visitor [visa] or go back home,” says the founder of Toronto-based AKM Law.
“It’s one of those things—Canada expects you to have a skilled job to have your spouse here too.”
The stakes are just as high for international student graduates whose goal is permanent residency. “They’re sort of job-locked because they have to go down this path [of getting a NOC B job] in order to get their permanent residence. After they get PR, they can finally start living the dream they want,” Mangat says.
“Is a job that’s considered a NOC B more important—should they be able to get permanent residence [more] than somebody working in retail, providing a service?” she adds. Retail salesperson jobs fall under the NOC skill level C.
“Why is their future not as important as someone having a NOC B or above?”
Landing a job in the pandemic
When Verma—who also holds bachelor’s degrees in education and commerce, as well as an MBA in business administration—completed her diploma in September 2020, she was working part-time as a courier recruiter for a food delivery tech company. She enjoyed the job, but it fell under the NOC C category.
Thankfully, working from home allowed her to take on a second job. She landed a role as an office administrator for a transportation company, which was considered NOC B.
It was difficult to work 70 hours a week, she says, but the pandemic’s remote work setup made it manageable. Her husband was then able to get a new work permit.
Today they plan to apply for permanent residency through Manitoba’s Provincial Nominee Program, which they hope will finally reunite them with their daughter, Vrinda, now three years old.
“I don’t need a job offer to prove my skills”
Ottawa recently announced a new pathway to permanent residency for 40,000 international students as part of their goal to admit 401,000 immigrants in 2021. The program is open to international students who have graduated from a Canadian university or college within the past four years.
“I would say that’s progress in a sense, to make their policies a little less contingent on the NOC and a little more responsive to international students and temporary foreign workers,” says Jansen.
“There is clearly demand for their skills here, but those skills might not be best represented in current NOC categories.”
Jansen adds that there are more skills and jobs than is currently represented in the NOC. “It actually represents a very narrow picture of the world of work. So I think that the way individuals describe their work, and the autonomy they need to be able to do that, is important.”
Verma thinks the NOC requirement “needs to be removed completely.”
“As long as they are working with an employer, working full-time, meeting all the other requirements, I do not feel that the NOC code [requirement] needs to be there,” she says. “A cashier at Walmart is working as equally as a skilled worker.”
“I’ve done my bachelor’s, I have a master’s—that means I’m skilled,” she adds.
“I don’t need a job offer to prove my skills.”
Johna Baylon is a freelance journalist and writer based in Vancouver, B.C. She is also NCM's Local Journalism Initiative Reporter. She is drawn to stories around immigration, care work, and communities in the diaspora. Born in the Philippines, Baylon grew up in Hong Kong, where she covered food and design as a writer and editor prior to moving to Canada in 2019. Find her on Twitter @johnabaylon.