12/14/2012 09:20 EST | Updated 02/13/2013 05:12 EST

Employment rate for immigrants improved last year, but still lags

OTTAWA - Immigrants are seeing better employment prospects in Canada, but they still lag behind their Canadian-born counterparts because of a gap in local experience, experts say.

Employment among immigrants between 25 and 54 years of age jumped 4.3 per cent in 2011, compared with the previous year, a new Statistics Canada report says.

But total immigrant employment in that key age group was 75.6 per cent in 2011, well below the 82.9 per cent rate for Canadian-born workers.

That's mainly because seniority counts in the workplace, said Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland.

"When there are layoffs, newbies get turfed first," Kurland said in an interview. "So when there is economic change, immigrants are usually first for dismissal. You see the same pattern for youth."

Seniority means a gap will likely remain for some time between employment rates for immigrants and their Canadian-born counterparts, Kurland said. But immigrant employment rates are likely to continue to increase, he added.

"Our immigration policies have shifted," he said. "There is a special attention to hire and retain younger people."

Immigration policies are also starting to favour younger workers, especially those with some Canadian work or education experience. For example, international students graduating in Canada can apply to become permanent residents.

The increase also reflects, in part, expanded programs like the provincial nominee program, where applicants usually have Canadian jobs or job offers already lined up, said Debbie Douglas, the executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants.

"Provinces can pick and choose people for the specific qualifications and skills they need," she said.

Employers still don't value or recognize foreign work experience and qualifications the same way they do Canadian equivalents, Douglas added.

"There is a hesitation ... [employers] want to hire those who appear to fit in."

The continued gap in the success of immigrants and locals threatens to hurt Canada's reputation when it comes to attracting immigrants, she said.

"Canada needs to compete with other countries [for immigrants]," she says. "When potential immigrants look at the gap, it gives them pause.

"They think, 'Will I find the job I want and am qualified for?'"