It can be challenging for newcomers to find meaningful work in Canada. The ability to communicate in English—or French, for those settling in Quebec—will be one of the most important contributors to their success. It will affect their chances of being hired, promoted, and certified or licensed in many fields, not to mention the ability to maintain their mental health as they make friends and plant roots in their community.

For those not yet familiar with the CLB classifications, please see our post on Canadian Language Benchmarks for a detailed discussion of this system. In brief, it is a “common assessment method for individuals who are learning English as a second language.” CLB is measured in four different areas: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. There are 12 levels of proficiency, with 1 indicating basic knowledge of English and 12 indicating advanced knowledge. Anyone may have varying levels of proficiency. For instance, someone might have a higher CLB level in terms of speaking skills and a lower CLB level in terms of writing.

We have published separate posts on Helping Newcomers Work about:

In the Programs and Events section of our website, you can also use the “Type” filter to find programs to improve English by selecting any or all of the following options:

  • Basic skills with English;
  • ELT;
  • OSLT; and
  • Work-specific language training.

Many of these programs in our database require a minimum CLB level. A newcomer’s current level can be selected in the “Newcomer’s CLB level” filter. Newcomers who are unsure of their CLB level may take the following online self-assessment test. Please note that the test results are for informational use only and will not be recognized by government-funded programs that require an official CLB assessment in order to register.

To view the sets of speaking, listening, reading, and writing “Can Do” statements corresponding to each CLB level, please visit, for example, the website of Open School BC.

At CLB 3, some published job and program opportunities become available. These opportunities expand considerably at CLB 4. In neither case, however, are they likely to involve positions requiring interaction with the public.

Learning or improving English for work

Refugee newcomers can improve their general English not only through formal courses, but also by practicing with private sponsors or other volunteers. In the case of newcomers who lack a high level of education in their own language, tutoring may be the best and only way for them to learn English, since formal training in grammar may be beyond their grasp or interest. So take the time to tutor! Conversational training can be a great way to get closer to a newcomer who you have sponsored.

If a newcomer has a particular occupational skill or interest, it would be very helpful to focus on vocabulary specific to that occupation. This can be done with the aid of printed catalogues, magazines, or books; viewing websites online; or by visits to stores or other relevant worksites. (As an example, we have published a vocabulary list for landscaping, but we have not yet added links or translations into other languages). Newcomers can be very motivated to learn the language when it involves terms related to a career they are passionate about.

While they are taking courses or looking for full-time work, newcomers should also consider volunteer or part-time work to improve their English.

If a newcomer is lucky enough to obtain work with limited English proficiency, she is well-advised to make every effort to learn the essential language of the worksite within a matter of weeks. This will likely be stressful, especially at the very beginning, but is paramount to building self-confidence and forming a sense of belonging in new surroundings.

Personal safety should be a primary concern and language skills are vital to understanding what is happening on the job. In particular, language comprehension is crucial to identifying the dangers that exist in operating machinery; moving materials, equipment, and goods; proper handling of hazardous materials; and standard worksite procedures. Safety standards are often very different in Canada from what newcomers are used to in their countries of origin.

Newcomers may be very ready to work ‘hard’ when they start a job in Canada, but may not realize that, to move up, it is just as important, or even more important, to work “smart’. This requires not only understanding expectations, but also anticipating what supervisors and co-workers might appreciate, without being asked. The ability to communicate is very important in this regard.

Work opportunities at the level of CLB 3 or lower

At very low levels of English language proficiency, it can be difficult—but not impossible—for newcomers to find employment. The type of work available to those in this situation is commonly referred to as a “survival job.” It represents entry-level employment taken mainly to pay bills and keep busy, but is likely not related to one’s chosen or preferred line of work. The pay is usually minimum-wage and the work may involve night, weekend, and variable shifts.

On the positive side, survival jobs offer a chance to network and improve one’s English. Ideally, they also provide sufficient flexibility to search for more desirable employment. The trick is not to become trapped in such work due to continuing limitations in communication skills. A full-time job at an Arabic restaurant, for example, may pay the bills, but may also be a dead end in terms of finding other opportunities.

Note that the term “survival job” may also apply to work that requires CLB 5 or higher. The point is that the job is viewed as only temporary, while some other occupation is being pursued through training or job search.

We recommend visiting separate posts on Helping Newcomers Work about different sectors of work to consider, each of which makes mention of the level of English required. You can also consult the training and employment programs that may be available at the levels of CLB 2, 3, and 4, in our Programs and Events database:

  • Construction.
    • g. general labourer; bricklayer; painter; drywaller; roofer;
    • Program filter: “Construction.”
  • Landscaping.
    • g. garden maintenance; nursery/greenhouse worker; general labourer.
    • Program filter: “Landscaping.”
  • Sewing.
    • g. machine operator; home piece work;
    • Program filter: “Sewing.”
  • Restaurant and quick service industry. 
    • g. dishwasher; busser/table clearer; prep cook; kitchen helper;
    • Program filter: “Restaurant.”
  • Local delivery service.
    • g. driver; courier; packer; loader;
    • Program filter: “Delivery.”
  • Food processing and production.
    • g. Machine operator; food prep; butcher; baker;
    • There is particular demand in the meat packing sector.
    • Program filters: “Food processing;” “Food production.”
  • Auto repair.
    • g. automotive service technician/apprentice;
    • Program filter: “Automotive.”
  • Hospitality.
    • g. housekeeping room attendants; maintenance; dishwasher; table clearing; prep cook;
    • Program filter: “Hospitality.”
  • Retail.
    • g. warehouse (especially seasonal); all types of work in a grocery store that caters to a clientele, and has supervisors, possibly from the newcomer’s country of origin; cashier;
    • Program filters: “Retail;” “Customer service.”

In addition, our article on Entrepreneurship offers insight into English proficiency requirements for business-owners, as well as programs about how to start a business with no minimum English requirements.

Types of work which may be available at CLB 4, but about which we have not yet included a post on our website, include:

  • Food carts and trucks;
  • Janitorial and cleaning service.

Media Stories

‘I applied for over 100 jobs’: Refugees struggle to find employment in Manitoba (CBC, Dec. 29/17)

Unable to find work, many Syrian refugees reluctantly turn to social assistance (CBC, Nov. 13/17)