Indrani Mahanama is Sri Lankan civil
engineer by training and school teacher by necessity.
She has not one but two Masters degrees in engineering, the first from Russia and the other from Melbourne University — both of them from scholarships this former head girl was offered. In the blender of the New Zealand Qualifications Authority they became respectively, Bachelor of Engineering and Masters in Science, but as distorted as this recognition was, it did represent official acceptance of her qualifications.
So in the much vaunted knowledge economy of New Zealand she should have been able to get job — but she didn’t even get short-listed when she first arrived in 1997. When she got even close, her experience was questioned, though she had handled World Bank projects and had 11 years of practical experience overseas.
So she turned her talents to teaching. At the age of 38, the solo mother of three — her policeman husband was shot dead during civil unrest —went to teachers’ training college for one year course. She is now teaching maths at the private Queen Margaret School in Wellington. Hers is one of the many stories illustrating the difficulties faced by skilled Sri Lankan migrants when they arrive in New Zealand.
Mahanama arrived in the country at the beginning of 1997 and spent most of that year trying to get job in her profession.
“There were many job vacancies advertised at the time. I had qualifications more than were required in these ads but I hardly got invited to an interview even,” she recalls.
“I only got rejection letters saying that unfortunately I had not been selected and there were no specific reasons. Sometimes I received letter addressed to Mr, not Mrs, so I thought maybe this is not field for women in New Zealand.
“In the end I gave up. I thought I should divert my profession to one which was more feasible for women, and teaching came to mind.” She was accepted at Teachers Training College and finished the course there in 1998.
“It was really challenge to me because I had all that experience and I had to become student all over again.”
Mahanama believes recruitment agencies don’t really know what skills they can find in migrants.
“They didn’t give me the opportunity to show what I could do. I was very frustrated that first year because it is very hard to give up profession and divert into another,” says Mahanama who lived on student allowance and family benefit before she got her teaching job.
Though she’s saddened at her experience, she’s hardly bitter and has some suggestions which she feels might help both skilled migrants and the country.
“We were given visas to enter this country because of our qualifications. It’s free of charge — they didn’t have to spend money on our education so the country has ready-made professionals here,” she says.
“But there is no procedure here when we enter the country to implement that and make it happen. There should be system… we should report to the authorities such as WINZ or somebody who could really coordinate it and let us work for at least six months on voluntary basis. They should give us chance to show employers what we can do and it would be beneficial to all parties.”

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