Black Sheep in the System

You know you’re in Canada when… you have to get used to kitchen mechanics and amateur hour.

My family and I come from Germany, a country with a very rigid structure for occupations and rules for just about any profession you can imagine. People usually choose their career path after high school and follow that path for their entire working lives.

Canada is more flexible; but there was a time when I wondered whether this flexibility had pushed the system out of balance.

Canada has very high standards among its “educated” workforce, such as engineers, teachers and health care professionals. It can be difficult for a qualified immigrant to obtain proper credentials and work in his/her field of expertise.

On the other hand, important trades, such as plumber and roofer, are not always regulated. (In Western Canada, plumbing is regulated in Alberta and Saskatchewan only. Roofing is not regulated in the Western provinces.)

Of course there are properly qualified plumbers and roofers, but where there is no regulation there are a few black sheep as well – frustrating their customers and giving qualified tradespeople a bad reputation.

I am a ticketed plumber myself, but I didn’t want to work in that field in Canada. I found a part time job in a building supply store that offered flexibility for time with my children. During my time working there I encountered some of those black sheep: unqualified, self-proclaimed “tradespeople”, who made me doubt my enthusiasm for Canada’s flexibility. I don’t mean the average DIY handyman – I’m talking about people who made a living with their “skills”.

Like the supposed plumber who fixed a hole in an acrylic shower wall by taping a plastic bucket-lid to it and finishing it off with a bead of silicone. And the so-called roofer whose material of choice was duct tape (or the more expensive red sheathing tape for the high-end jobs).

I was an educated, qualified individual, making little more than minimum wage, in a job I was lucky to have – and some of my customers made good money doing questionable repairs with the potential to cause considerable damage. I am sure I was not the only immigrant frustrated by a situation like this, struggling to find a balance between feelings of entitlement and gratitude.

What to do?

Initially I wanted to change the system, show them how it’s done. My German competitiveness really came through, and I made a habit of pointing out the building codes and accepted practices for certain repairs. Neither my customers nor my boss were happy about that. It wasn’t my place to rattle the chains of a system that probably had no more faults than any other.

I believe it was part of my settlement process, part of coming to terms with living in Canada. I felt that I had something to bring to the table. Part of being an immigrant was seeing my role and my skills in a different perspective, so I could feel at home here, and make a meaningful contribution to my workforce and community. I realized that if I wanted to successfully change careers, I had to accept the system that enabled me to do those things. And eventually, I learned to do this; because no matter where you go, the perfect system does not exist.

Over time I learned to support my customers – including the kitchen mechanics – by giving them advice when they asked for it, and making suggestions rather than pushing building codes on them. After all, they had to answer to their customers, not to me.

I no longer wonder whether the system is strict enough. There is room for any level of skill, and the customers always get what they pay for. It’s not just a matter of acceptance, it’s also a matter of choice. And that’s one thing I appreciate very much about living in Canada: I have a choice.