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by   Sarita Bhatta

April 19, 2017

Professionalization of settlement work: understanding settlement work as a profession and its viability in the current immigration context

Abstract: This paper aims to argue in favour of the professionalization of settlement work. Professionalization of settlement work will contribute positively to the sector as a whole, including its workforce and client base. It will help develop permanence and identification to an otherwise invisible profession. Professionalization will not only empower people who work in this sector but also help build a collective voice and advocate for the improvement of social policies and programs directly affecting settlement workers and immigrants. Currently, the majority of people who are employed in this sector are immigrants. Professionalization will facilitate a more diverse labour force that will possess relevant professional training and education. This paper will focus on why settlement work should be professionalized and explore the pathways to professionalization for settlement workers. In addition, it argues for the importance of analyzing professions from a variety of theoretical viewpoints, especially those in the human services sector, as a means of better understanding settlement work as a profession and its relevancy to and effect on practitioners, the populations served, the organizations that carry out the work and society at large.


Settlement work as a profession is included in the Canadian National Occupation Classification (NOC) system under Skills group 4, “Professional occupations in law and social, community and government services” category (NOC: 2011). Two other professions that provide specific services to immigrants before and after their arrival in Canada are lawyers and immigration consultants. Both of these professions also fall under Skills group 4, however they are categorized slightly differently. Immigration lawyers and immigration consultants are regulated in Ontario and other provinces in Canada, while settlement workers are not. The work of these three professions overlap to some extent. However, the professionalization of immigration lawyers and immigration consultants has given them more authority and legitimacy: they enjoy more autonomy and status; they are protected and looked after by their regulatory bodies; and their roles, duties, responsibilities, ethics and boundaries are well-defined. Another way in which settlement workers differ from immigration lawyers and immigration consultants is that settlement workers are mostly immigrants. The same is not necessarily true of immigration consultants and immigration lawyers. This fact could play a role in determining the social status and lobbying capacity of the profession.

Researchers have defined a “profession” in a variety of ways: some have highlighted status, power, social responsibility, autonomy, ethics, service orientation, education and training, legal status and code of conduct as defining traits of professions, while others have analyzed professions as means of closure, monopoly and control. The difficulty in defining what exactly makes a profession is illustrated by Adams et al., who write “no single definition could fully capture the complexity of professional employment and its variation across time and place, professionalization as a process could be understood as a process by which occupations come to acquire professional status, and lay claim of practice, or jurisdiction as well as interprofessional conflict for control of jurisdiction” (Adams, 2010, p. 50). Nevertheless, professions can be broadly understood as organized self-governed groups that are granted authority by the state to set regulation for practice and entry to profession, and set boundaries of their work. These regulations are set to ensure the protection of the public and maintain ethical and professional practice. Professions enjoy the power and capacity to do advocacy on behalf of their members and clients, to help ensure the long-term viability and success of the profession and its members. Professional regulation grants professions legal and social status, and shapes their relationships with the community, public, and other professional groups.

Settlement work as a profession, exploring the settlement sector:

According to the Canadian National Settlement Service Standards Framework, settlement workers are defined as “anyone whose primary function is to provide direct client settlement services (also known as ‘practitioner,’ ‘counsellor’ or, in French, ‘intervenant’) (Canadian National Settlement Service Standards Framework: 2000). Settlement workers work in the non-profit sector, specifically, settlement agencies, which are funded by the government. Settlement workers provide direct services to immigrants exclusively and they are restricted by their organizations and funders to serve other than immigrant population. Based on the nature of their work, settlement workers are responsible for providing services to newcomers and immigrants, who comprise a vulnerable population that relies heavily on the information and advice they receive. When there are language, economic and cultural barriers, some newcomers solely rely on settlement workers to understand and settle in Canada, making the services they provide very important to the successful integration of immigrants. This paper will explore how the sector and service users will benefit from the regulation and professionalization of settlement work. Important questions like, what is the viability of settlement workers in the current social and political context and what challenges do settlement workers face, will be examined.

Settlement workers provide various forms of support and assistance to immigrant populations, especially to new immigrants who have been in Canada for less than 3 years and who have not achieved Canadian citizenship status. Settlement workers help newcomers meet their core settlement needs in order to facilitate their adaption to and integration in Canadian society. Hirayama and Cetingok identify three roles of workers serving newcomers: cultural translators, cultural mediators and role models (George, 2002, p. 5). These roles are enacted by providing information and referrals to newcomers about government and community programs and helping them fill out the subsequent forms, doing advocacy, running workshops and activities, and more. Some of the main issues that they provide assistance with are housing, consumer information, education, employment, translation, interpretation, health services and so on.

Given the high expectations for settlement workers from clients, organizations and funders, Usha George criticizes the view that settlement workers can and should deal with the entirety of newcomers’ needs, especially if they are not specifically trained to do so (2002). Immigrants arriving in Canada are not a homogeneous group with standard informational and support needs. Settlement workers work with and support economic immigrants, who are selected based on their human capital and skills, and have greater potential to succeed in the labour market; family class immigrants, who are spouses, partners, children, parents and grandparents of citizens and permanent residents; and refugees, who are referred by The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as government assisted refugees, or are privately sponsored refugees and asylum seekers within Canada. This comprises a very diverse group of people of different ages, socio-economic backgrounds and varied physical and mental health status. The study “Rebuilding Professional Lives: Immigrant Professionals Working in the Ontario Settlement Sector”, which was based on online surveys and in-depth interviews conducted from 2009 to 2010, shows that most settlement workers do not possess academic background in settlement services, immigration studies or non-profit related educated background. Instead, settlement workers are usually foreign trained professionals who faced barriers in practicing their respective professions after immigration to Canada. Consequently, they acquire a new profession and find work as settlement workers (Türegün: 2013). Even though settlement workers may not enter the profession with related training or education, they are expected to deliver specialized services geared to facilitate the full and equitable participation of newcomers in Canada’s social, economic, cultural and political life.

The precarious nature of the settlement sector is explored in “Scoping Study on Settlement Services in the City of Toronto.” According to this study, among publicly funded social services, “the settlement sector has created what some have termed a ghettoized job market” (Kilbride, 2009, p.4). It describes how women form 80% of the labour force in these agencies, 75% of whom are immigrants and 70% racial minorities (Kilbride: pp. 4: 2009). Settlement workers face increasing workloads because of limited funds and increasing numbers of clients they have to serve. This sector also faces higher turnover rates and workers have few opportunities for career advancement and professional development. The unhealthy work environment and lack of opportunities for growth hampers the sector’s capacity to attract, train, and retain skilled staff. Furthermore, other key issues that the sector faces are financial restraints, budget restrictions, inability to provide competitive wages, and heavy workloads.

Brief history of Canadian immigration:

Immigration to Canada has a varied history, which according to Yan Guo can be understood as having four phases. In the first phase of immigration from 1867 to 1895, only people from the United Kingdom and of western European origin were welcomed to Canada, and there were restrictions for non-white immigrants. During the second phase, from 1896 to 1914, Canada began to allow immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. In the third period, which ran from 1915 to 1945, British and American immigrants were preferred, followed by northern European and central European immigrants. By 1960, there were major changes to Canada’s immigration policies, influenced by the realization that immigrants from traditional countries could not meet labour market demands in Canada. The points-based immigration system that is currently in use was established in 1967 and awards applicants a score based on education, occupation, language skills and work experience. Its inception illustrates the higher emphasis placed on human capital and the acknowledgement of the economic benefits of immigration. The points system has facilitated immigration from developing countries: in recent decades, 80% of Canadian immigrants come from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Central and South America 17. (Nesbit et al.: 2013, p. 330). Since 2001, Canada has welcomed 250,000, immigrants per year (IRCC: 2017). In order to prepare immigrants for the Canadian labour market and support their integration into society, settlement services are mainly funded by the federal agency Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), with some programs funded by provincial and municipal governments. Given the large number of Canadians retiring, according to the Conference Board of Canada, Canada will need “350,000 estimated number of immigrants annually by 2035 to meet its workforce needs” (Conference Board of Canada: 2017), which affirms the ongoing need for settlement workers to help immigrants settle in Canada.

The history of settlement services in Canada can be traced back many decades: “Settlement services, both formal and informal, have a long history in Canada. Countless newcomers have been assisted on arrival, often by organizations emanating from faith and ethnic communities” (Canadian National Settlement Service Standards Framework: 2000). In 1974, the federal government launched the Immigrant Settlement and Adaptation Program (ISAP), which facilitated settlement services to newcomers. Gradually, a specialized settlement sector developed, which now employs significant numbers of immigrants who bring their own experience of settlement and integration to their work. Over time, the sector has evolved tremendously, with various forms of associations and local immigration partnership councils whose purpose is to enhance the capacity of the sector through research, networking and training. Currently, federal, provincial/territorial and municipal government play an active role in facilitating immigrant settlement. According to the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada the settlement program expenditure amounted to around $600 million in 2015-16. The total number of immigrants that landed in the year 2015 was 271,845, while 2016’s total was 320,932, the largest number of newcomers in a single year since 1910. Canada’s target for 2017 is 300,000. (IRCC: 2017). From these recent statistics, we can predict that a large number of immigrants will continue to come to Canada and that more formal services will help them become independent and contribute to society faster.

“Best Settlement Practices: Settlement Services for Refugees and Immigrants in Canada,” a document published by the Canadian Council for Refugees in February of 1998, was produced in order to establish standards and affirm the legitimacy of the sector by clearly communicating the sector’s goals and activities. It contains Best Practice guidelines and was a joint effort of multiple stakeholders, including refugees and immigrants, front-line settlement workers, settlement organization managers and board members, and representatives of federal and provincial governments, to whom it aimed to provide assurance about the quality of services. It was believed that clearly articulated standards will result in a common understanding and will facilitate cross-referrals and partnerships among agencies. This document also outlines the qualities, values, professional ethics, knowledge, skills and personal suitability that settlement workers must possess and entitles immigrants and refugees to that level of service. However, the reality is that most settlement workers come from various professional backgrounds and, consequently, may not have special training in these expected qualities. Moreover, that there is no standard regulation to make sure that workers possess and practice these specified values contributes to the improbability that these qualities and expectations are upheld.

Studies of the professionalization process (literature review):

To understand professions and the professionalization process, it is important to see professions from a variety of lenses. Throughout the history of the study of professions, different theories have been offered, with each theory reflecting how professions were viewed at that time and in that context. Still today, these theories provide us with solid ground to analyze professions in contemporary society. In any study of professions, there is no one particular theory that entirely encapsulates the sector, largely because of the diversified nature of professions that we have in today’s labor market, which includes professions in the corporate, non-profit, health and technical sectors. While there may be some commonalities between different professions such as ethics, autonomy, status and specialized education, there are many differences and factors such as time, context and nature of profession, determines its traits and impact of profession on society and society’s impact on profession. It is not adequate to analyze professions through only one lens or theory. The triangulation theory offered by V. Burau and Bogh Andersen (Burau et al.: 2014) and the “eclectic” approach suggested by Mike Saks (Saks: 2016) are useful tools to understand and unpack professions in a holistic way.

According to Burau et al., “Theoretical triangulation means applying multiple lenses, and the approaches used may have similar or opposing viewpoints, depending on what the researcher hopes to accomplish” (Burau et al.: 2014, p 266). This triangulation approach is a tool to dissect professions from multiple angles and perform a critical analysis from opposing viewpoints. Another approach that allows us to see professions from the macro, meso and micro level is the eclectic approach as defined by Mike Saks, who writes about the positive effect of “more eclecticism in future theoretical developments in studying professions given the insights that other approaches considered in this review can bring, especially in well-judged, creative combination” (Saks: 2016, p.1). To understand settlement work as a profession and its relevancy to and effect on practitioners, service users, related organizations and society at large, it is important to analyze the profession from various perspectives.

History of study of professions:

According to Tracy L. Adams, in order to conceptualize and conduct research on professions in the present, it is necessary to develop a more accurate, empirically based understanding of what professions were in the past (Adams, 2015, p. 49). Having an understanding of the historical development of professions provides us with ideas about how professions were established and the role of practitioners, the state and society in their creation, progress and continuity. The beginnings of a sociological theory of professions can be traced to the work of Max Weber in the early twentieth century. According to Saks, “the task of defining professions seriously began with the taxonomic approach of the 1950s and 1960s” (Saks, 2016, p. 2). He goes on to identify two manifestations of the taxonomic approach: the trait view and structural functionalist analysis of profession. The trait approach defines profession based on characteristics of professions such as a systematic knowledge base, formal training and an altruistic orientation. The structural functionalist approach also define professions by defining a virtues, they see professions as overly homogenous groups and do not recognize and  refer to the conflict that may arise with in professions and groups (Saks: 2016). In order to understand professions in contemporary society, the trait approach is not adequate because of its rigid insistence on the importance of characteristics and qualities, to which many professions today do not fully adhere.

Similarly, four central themes that were important to the sociology of professions in the “golden age” in the mid-twentieth century are: expert knowledge; autonomy; a normative service orientation grounded in community; and status, income and rewards (Sandefur, 2011, p. 275). This approach is based on a limited number of traditional occupations and is described by Elizabeth H. Gorman and Rebecca L. Sandefur as relying on “outdated theoretical frameworks that no longer hold much appeal” (Sandefur et al., 2011, p. 276).  However, in the current neoliberal environment, the power and autonomy of a number of professions is in question. Professionals such as doctors, lawyers and architects, who used to enjoy higher social status and respect, no longer have access to the power they enjoyed in the past. These days, an increasing number of professionals are employed by multinational companies and are influenced by decisions and changes made by employers.

Another perspective in the study of professionalization is a Marxist approach. As Saks writes, “The Marxist perspective was based on situating professions in a capitalist frame of reference rather than that of a more amorphous industrial society” (Saks, 2016,  p. 4). Researchers who adopt his approach focus on the ways in which capitalists use professionals to accumulate wealth and exercise control over other workers and the rest of society. There are two types of perspectives within the Marxist theory of professions: the first sees “the ‘professional-managerial class’ as agents of surveillance and control for capital” (Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich 1979); the second contends that professions like medicine are part of the capitalist class itself, albeit without necessarily having formal ownership of the means of production (Saks, 2016, p. 5). This approach looks at professionals either as agents of capitalist society or as capitalists themselves, because of the power and status they exercise in society. Marxist theory in general argues that the state’s actions and policies support capitalism and enact laws that favour professions and capitalists. As such, we cannot study professions from this theoretical framework, as it ignores the many professions in society that do not enjoy status, power and autonomy as defined by Marxist theorists. Professions such as nurses, teachers and social workers do not have a direct relation with the means of production.

The neo-Weberian approach has had a strong impact on the study of the sociology of professions. According to the neo-Weberian theory of closure, professional organizations act as guards and maintain closure to the profession because it is in their own best interest to do so. This theory is useful in understanding the relationship between professions, organizations and society (Saks, 2016, p.7). According to this theory, the professionalization process is a strategy to control the supply of entrants to an occupation, which in turn maintains and enhances the value of that profession in the market. This theory bring some nuance to the commonly studied taxonomic approach, because it looks beyond traits and the complementary assumptions put forth by trait and structural functionalist approaches. This approach highlights how professions create closure based on codified knowledge, gender and social class.

The neo-Weberian approach is important to the study of settlement workers, as most are immigrants themselves and have faced professional social closure. The approach is valuable in gaining an understanding of the exclusionary and inclusionary closures faced by settlement workers and whether any type of closure exists in the settlement sector itself. The study “Immigrant Women Workers in the Settlement Sector: Niche Employment or Occupational Segmentation? A comparative study of Germany and Canada” is based on a theoretical framework that links the concepts of labour market segmentation and social closure. According to this study, the employment of immigrant women in the settlement sector can be understood in the context of exclusion from professions they had before coming to Canada and through the ways in which women working in this sector experience occupational segmentation based on their gender, race and immigration status. This study provides a glimpse of how the settlement sector is a highly segmented labour market, with immigrant women working in positions with low pay, little job security and limited career opportunities.

Throughout the 1970s, the study of professions emphasized the concept of power. According to Tracy L. Adams, “what distinguishes professions from other occupations was practitioners’ ability to control their occupation, their work, and the labor of those who worked with them” (Adams, 2010, p. 55). In the current neoliberal environment, the power and autonomy of professions is in question: do professionals really exercise the same amount of power that they enjoyed in the past in any sector from health to law, accounting to social work? These days’ professionals are employed by multinational companies and are impacted greatly by decisions made by these companies. Some other critical theories of professions that focus on power dynamics are internationalism, Foucauldianism and discourse analysis. More recently during the 2000s, neo-institutionalism theory emerged. It focuses explicitly on the relationship between professions, organizations and society.

Each theory, when applied to the study of professions, provides a unique perspective to see a profession from multiple angles. At the time that most theories of professions were created, the professions such as doctors, lawyers, architects, accountants were dominated by elite members of society. In addition, people working in these professions came from elite families, were mainly men and conspired to create closure for other classes and genders. Today, we see growth in professions whose members do not come from the elite class, such as social workers, social service workers, early childhood educators and teachers. Indeed, “Conceptualizations of professions as powerful, autonomous groups of workers have been based on a fairly limited set of experiences: predominantly prominent professions, such as medicine and law in the United States and United Kingdom, in the mid-twentieth century” (Adams, 2010, p. 52).  It is important to understand the professionalization process of professions in the human services sector from multiple approaches because only one theory do not cover the scope and reality of these professions.

If we look at the history of professions in Ontario that mainly belong to the not-for-profit and human services sector, these professions were established more recently in comparison to other professions that have existed for centuries. For example, the Social Service Work Act 1998 was fully proclaimed into law on August 15, 2000. Similarly, the practice of early childhood education in Ontario, which is regulated by the College of Early Childhood Educators, is in accordance with the Early Childhood Educators Act of 2007.

Professionalization of settlement workers:

Professionalization of settlement workers will not only empower workers but also improve the quality of work, set standards for service delivery and improve the settlement process for immigrants. Settlement work as a profession will develop its capacity to advocate that settlement is not a short-term matter, but an ongoing process. Providing services to immigrants in regard to their landing data will help immigrants and contribute positively to the settlement sector and variability of settlement work as a profession. Once settlement work has been professionalized, workers will have more lobbying power, which for a sector that is made up of more than 80% immigrants will greatly improve the bargaining capacity of a group that has historically suffered from a lack of social capital.

Although it is true that regulations and professionalization will restrict access to professional practice for many immigrants, this cost will be offset by the assurance of competence and improvement in public well-being that many more immigrants will benefit from.

According to Tracy L. Adam, the impetus for regulating a profession originates from workers themselves rather than legislators. It is achieved through intense lobbying by leading practitioners and their professional organizations (Adams: 2007). Generally, many professional groups seek regulation when faced with intense competition from lesser trained workers. The professionalization process for settlement workers may seem more challenging because settlement workers who are immigrants themselves usually have less social capital and lobbying power in comparison to professions that are not dominated by immigrants.

Yet another challenge that settlement workers face is government targets to bring more immigrants who are ready to work on arrival in Canada, have higher language proficiency and have skill sets based on labour market needs. The establishment of more pre-arrival services for immigrants, and technological advancement and online information services offered within Canada can also threaten the scope of settlement work and its professionalization process.

The professionalization of settlement work will demand specific entry, education requirements in addition to other necessary skills in order to more clearly define what will be expected of workers. Sita Jayaraman & Harald Bauder observed a disconnect between the qualifications of workers and their roles and responsibilities within settlement agencies (Jayaraman et.al, 2013, p.18). According to this study, workers in the sector tend to have unrelated qualifications. Usually, settlement workers are hired because of their knowledge of culture, language ability and life experience as an immigrant. However, this study reveals that immigrants from various occupational backgrounds such as health, engineering and teaching work as settlement workers.

In the last few years, some universities and colleges have begun to offer settlement services-oriented academic programs and training. As a result, new graduates are entering the profession with sector-specific qualifications such as diplomas and degrees in immigration and refugee studies. This has created conflict between the new entrants who enter the sector with some related educational background and longtime settlement workers who do not have any related education or professional training. Sita Jayaraman & Harald Bauder highlight “there is a real tension that exists between those who have been in the sector a quarter of a century and see immigrant integration as a political cause and the kind of change that is happening in terms of the tone of the sector, where younger workers are seeing this as a career choice” (Jayaraman et.al, 2013, p.13). In this study authors refers to the experience of one of the study participants, who says, “I myself, as a white, Canadian-born woman, I have been asked, and I get very confused by this, why do I work in this sector? It is a career interest” (Jayaraman et.al, 2013: p. 13). It is a common assumption that people who work in this sector are immigrants, which poses a challenge to other people who wants to start careers in this sector. The professionalization process will open doors for both people who are not immigrants and newcomers who want to work in this sector.

An increase in the diversity of the workforce of the settlement sector will generate new ideas, provide opportunities for more interaction between immigrants and native born Canadians, help make community connections and build social capital for newcomers. Many studies shows that newcomers live in enclaves and do not get opportunities to interact with people outside their cultural communities. The presence of non-immigrant practitioners in the settlement sector will build bridges for intercultural interaction and connections.

Finally, the professionalization of the sector will empower settlement workers so they can advocate for policy change and better working conditions for themselves, as well as providing them autonomy and voice.  Because of the lack of funding and increased workloads, workers in the settlement sector face unhealthy work environments, characterized by having a large number of clients with various needs without proper support and resources. There are very few opportunities for professional growth and career advancement for settlement workers. According to study “A Scoping Study on Settlement Services in the City of Toronto, “the capacity to attract, train, and retain skilled staff remains a key issue for agencies” (Kilbride, 2009, p. 4). Many immigrants who work as settlement workers choose the profession because they could not find employment in the occupation they held before arriving in Canada. This contributes to higher turnover rates among workers and some workers simply consider these jobs a springboard to a different job.


Canada is recognized as a global leader in immigration management and integration known for its world class settlement programs. However, it is also true that settlement workers who work in this sector are not looked after properly. They work in precarious environments, endure job insecurity, are low paid and lack opportunities for professional development and career advancement. They deal with the increasingly complex settlement needs of immigrants without the necessary professional and educational background. According to professional learning theories, life experiences and workplace learning are one aspect of learning.  If is not combined with professional learning and continuous human resources development, the knowledge and skills of workers in changing world is hard to keep and advance. To help settlement workers grow and to facilitate healthy work environments, the professionalization of the sector is necessary. This will not only empower workers but also help achieve positive outcomes for newcomers. The professionalization process will require settlement workers to receive training to accomplish the tasks and follow the norms and ethics of the profession; identify its members through a professional association; and help build a long-term commitment to the profession. Linda Evans uses the “word ‘profession’ to refer to an occupation that controls its own work, organized by a special set of institutions sustained in part by a particular ideology of expertise and service” (Evans, 2008, p.10). The professionalization of settlement workers will not only protect workers but also foster better settlement and inclusion of newcomers by ensuring that practitioners in the settlement sector have a voice and are qualified, competent and ethical.


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Sarita Bhatta is a community development professional with expertise in community outreach and engagement, immigrant settlement, language, education and employment services. She is a firm believer in the value of adult education—for both clients and her own personal and professional growth.