Survival Jobs – are they a good option?

Newcomers to Canada come with a common dream: to improve the quality of their lives and to offer their children more opportunities that those they may have had if staying in their home countries. Many, however, come with no previous Canadian experience, credentials not yet recognized and the minimum budget to survive for up to six months (sometimes less). Even this money is often borrowed from family and friends; so getting a job becomes imperative. After sending hundreds of resumes, anxiety settles in and the prospect of taking a “survival job” seems attractive. Many  see survival jobs as their only option to get “Canadian experience” an yet others see them as a way to improve their English and get some structure while earning money…but is this a good choice?

While getting a job may be essential to start a new life in a different country, not all the jobs are equal, nor offer the same advantages.  Most immigrants are highly skilled and have either post-secondary education or work experience, or both. But many turn to survival jobs…and they become their journey to an unfulfilled, underpaid and frustrating life in this, their new home.

In my experience as a counsellor, in only 20% of the cases immigrants take survival jobs because they need to pay the bills. In 80% of the cases, this is more an act of desperation, a way to fill out the void of not having a routine and feeling useful. Although this is understandable, in most cases using your emotions to make decisions is not the best for your long-term goals, and the outcome may hurt your opportunities of getting a professional job in Canada in the future as well.

But let’s agree first on what is a “survival job”: Typically, a survival job is a job whose requirements differ and are usually lower than the qualifications a person has. Survival jobs tend to pay low salaries and involve physical or entry-level, low-skilled skills and no more than 12 grade or very basic education and training are required.

While these jobs are necessary for society to function, skilled immigrants are underutilized: engineers, teachers, IT specialists, accountants, managers and doctors serving as cashiers, sales associates or maintenance workers are not the best way to build an economy nor a strong society.

So it may become a good decision?

The best way to decide whether taking a survival job would be beneficial for you is to analyze it “strategically”. What will this job give you, and what will it take from you?

First, if you have just come to Canada, try to avoid being in a situation where you have no other choice but accept a “survival” job: take some time to research the labour market and how your occupation fares in Canada. What are the requirements, is there a regulatory body, do you have any technical, knowledge or experience gap? – Take time to create a plan: step-by-step, make sure you incorporate English and skills upgrading, licensing (if required to work in your occupation) and networking. Get as active as you can, join associations and attend to events. Never lose your professionalism, and be open to new ideas and opportunities. Getting a professional job may take up to two years (some times more, if your profession is regulated). A good way to start is looking for jobs at a lower level, but always under your occupation/industry umbrella. If you were an engineer, look for technician, technologist or junior engineering jobs. If you were a teacher, look into teacher assistant, tutor or even settlement worker at community agencies or schools.

The second step is to analyze your family and financial situation. How long can you afford to be unemployed? Some couples decide that one (the less employable) would take a survival job, while the other continues to network, learn and connect to get the professional job. Once he/she gets it, they switch, and the second person can go back to school if needed, improve their English, and start in the path of getting a professional job as well.

In your plan, make sure to mark when you should switch to a “plan B”. When are the red flags going to start flashing? When you have $10,000 in the bank? Less than that? In this case, getting a survival job may be the option against going back to your home country with empty hands.

Now that you know when and if you should get a survival job, create a table and write all the “pros” (or what this job will give you) and the “cons” (what this job will take from you). How many “pros” do you have? How many “cons”?

If you are stuck, I have a list of examples from my own clients of what a survival job may provide and take:

It provides: some security and money (but not much, as they usually pay the minimum); routine and a place to go everyday (as opposed to staying at home with “nothing to do”, if you don’t have a sound job-search plan); a group of people to share and feel that you belong (though they may be little time to socialize); a sense of being useful and relief for the anxiety that unemployment causes (but this may be temporary).

However, a survival job will take from you: your skills (the less you use them, the faster you’ll lose them); gaps in your resume (or, if you decide to include it, it may not look great for a professional job goal); time and energy from you (you will find it too difficult to study, network or look for professional jobs if you are working full-time); your self-esteem and self-image may go down (as you will see yourself as somebody less skilled than you really are, and may have to work under the supervision of somebody you consider less educated or experienced).

If after this analysis, you still decide to take a survival job; make sure you choose a line of work where you can really benefit: try something in your own industry, or a job that provides training or the opportunity to practice transferable skills (skills that may be used on your own industry later). Or take a job in an area you have always been curious about, so it gives you the opportunity to explore other career options.

Finally, if you already have a survival job, keep yourself motivated: make a plan on what you will do to reach your professional goal. Make time and put aside some money to get your credentials assessed, go back to school (if needed) and improve your English. And don’t forget who you are and why you came here!

This article was published on the Canadian Immigrant magazine in December 2012 (Print version only)

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