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January 15, 2013

Canadian experience: the newcomer services’ view

by Gerard Keledjian
A group of newcomer service providers attending Gerard Keledjian's presentation on "Immigration and the Media" at the Ryerson Centre for Immigration and Settlement - #CdnImm Event #3

By 2015, 100 per cent of all labour growth in Canada will come from immigration. Still, recent statistics show that GTA unemployment rates, for example, stand at 5.4 per cent for Canadian-born workers, while they’re almost double for immigrants, at 9.6 per cent. If we just look at those who arrived in the past five years, the figure is as high as 14.2 per cent.

In an an effort to study the employment barriers faced by immigrants and the effective strategies used by Canadian companies to take advantage of their skills, University of Toronto academics joined community and corporate leaders in “Beyond Canadian Experience.” Authors of the 2011 study agreed that the request for “Canadian experience” is one of the most significant barriers preventing immigrants from contributing their skills to the national economy.

But newcomers looking for work in Canada can be stymied by employers looking for “Canadian experience.” And yet even the settlement sector itself has trouble defining that badly over-used term.

“I think it’s something that, unfortunately, employers use to express their lack of understanding and knowledge about international experience, education and credentials. For companies looking to hire somebody they look for what’s familiar to them and that’s why they talk about Canadian experience,” says Allison Pond, Executive Director of ACCES Employment in Toronto.

Pond sees organizations like hers as a network for newcomers, connecting them to the workplace. As one of the major barriers newcomers face is their lack of networks, ACCES tries to build relationships with employers, and connect newcomers to employers, regulators and licensing bodies—always with the intention of moving them to their field of work.

A group of settlement workers attending Gerard Keledjian's presentation on "Immigration and the Media" at the Ryerson Centre for Immigration and Settlement - #CdnImm Event #3

A group of settlement workers attending Gerard Keledjian’s presentation on “Immigration and the Media” at the Ryerson Centre for Immigration and Settlement – #CdnImm Event #3

But for others in the sector, “Canadian experience” is actually a convenient shorthand for some important qualifications for prospective job candidates. For Shabnum Budhwani, Manager for Programs and Services at Skills for Change, by “Canadian experience” people refer to “soft skills” (as opposed to so-called “hard skills”, which can be supported by evidence). “When they talk about “Canadian experience”, they talk about being able to fit in the Canadian work environment, being a team player, responding to issues and solving them.”

According to Budhwani, Skills for Change tries to foster the environment newcomers need to acquire these skills over time in its workshops. At the same time, through visits, job fairs, work placements and panel interviews employers gain knowledge about the benefits of hiring skilled immigrants, overcome their “fear of the unknown” and trust them with added work responsibilities.

Peter Paul is the project leader at Assisting Local Leaders with Immigrant Employment Strategies (ALLIES), which supports local efforts to successfully adapt and implement programs that further the suitable employment of skilled immigrants. He says that there are in fact employers who are open to hire skilled new Canadians. “Canadian experience be damned–but they just can’t find the right people for the right job. New immigrants are working with community agencies and service providers but “there’s a huge gap between the settlement sector and actual employers who have those jobs. We’re trying to build bridges between those two communities,” Paul says.

One way ALLIES builds these bridges is through one-on-one mentoring, which creates direct connections between employers and new Canadians. ALLIES also manages a website called hireimmigrants.ca, which provides businesses with the tools and resources to better recruit and retain skilled immigrants. Through webinars, success stories, videos and other tools, hireimmigrants.ca showcases best practices of employers across Canada to help other corporations make progress in sourcing and integrating skilled immigrants into their workforce. Highlighting experiences like the “buddy system” matching new and seasoned employees at financial advisory firm Deloitte & Touche—where a new Canadian or other new employee is matched with a long-time employee for six months—could help employers to be better equipped in recruiting, retaining and promoting skilled immigrants.

Another way immigrant-serving agencies are trying to better connect skilled immigrants with employers is through internships. Through the CareerBridge paid internship program, for example, 1700 internationally qualified professionals have connected with leading Canadian employers since 2003. Eighty per cent of those succeeded in leveraging their internships into full-time, professional-level positions in their field.

“An internship can potentially lead to a permanent opportunity in your field, we know that is true. The internship would give you that Canadian work experience,” says Anne Lamont, president and CEO of Career Edge Organization (CEO), which manages the CareerBridge program. But she notes that some agencies, with all the best intentions, tell newcomers not to include all their skills and experience in their resumes to avoid looking overqualified and make themselves eligible for the internships or job opportunities. All this does, Lamont says, “is perpetuate a continued lower level of regard employers have for skilled immigrants.” Employers want to see a comprehensive, well-documented cover letters and resumes, which are reflective of the individual’s skills and accomplishments, she says.

In regards to building connections, progress has been achieved on other fronts, according to Paul. “Employers are more aware now of immigrant talent and the values they bring to their companies than in the past years. And programs are being developed in Canadian cities – mentoring, internships across different sectors – though relatively small, but bridges are being built between the manufacturing sector in a community and the community sector that source talent.”

Still, there is a long way to go. Paul says that some immigrant-serving community agencies, especially the small ones, are not as well placed to work with employers, as it’s difficult to be knowledgeable about accounting, finance, but also manufacturing, insurance and other sectors. That’s why ALLIES tries to deal with their own knowledge deficit by working closely with immigrant employment councils across Canada.

One of these councils coordinating between employers and the settlement sector is the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC). “We get a chance to interface with employers to get an idea of what they are looking for. So whether it would be an actual skill set, an experience or type of profession or occupation, it gives TRIEC an opportunity to get that information from employers and then be able to pass it on to community agencies that we partner or work with,” says Charles Achampong, Manager of Corporate and Stakeholder Relations at TRIEC. Conversely, he sees this giving them an opportunity as well to learn about what challenges some immigrant-serving agencies are facing and pass it on to employers.

He warns that the settlement sector has to get better at making information available to professional regulatory bodies, different levels of government and prospective immigrants as well.

A special report published by TD Economics in February 2012 recommends that the federal government could consider giving the provinces a lump sum of settlement funds. Since the provincial authorities, according to the report, have a better idea of what services best suit the settlement employment and other needs of immigrants present in their jurisdictions, they would be better positioned to fund particular community-based groups and optimize service delivery and outcome. The report also urges that immigrant–serving agencies adopt a coordinated approach to service delivery that includes sharing common best practices. As stated in the report, “standardization of the language programs, credential recognition services, and employment services could mitigate much of the risk that businesses associate with hiring an immigrant.”

A Participatory Action Research report published by the Mennonite New Life Centre-Toronto back in 2009, likewise pushed for improved coordination and coherence of services, proposing that professional regulators establish and disclose a consistent and transparent process to evaluate relevant competence and knowledge of skilled workers, create and promote a government loan fund for newcomers to access the credential recognition process and promote a standardized language exams for newcomer.

Pond, Budhwani and others working in the sector admit the existence of lack of coordination, fragmented services and competition for funding. However, they quickly point to the attempts at improved coordination, and at the collaborative work that is being achieved within platforms like the Local Immigration Partnership (LIP) or the Consortium of Agencies Serving Internationally-trained Persons (CASIP), where independent, community-based agencies, service providers and colleges in the GTA have come together and developed formal partnerships and strategies to coordinate and enhance service delivery to newcomers.

“I know we’re not moving immigrants into their field quickly enough. It’s not happening at the level it should be by now for all the energy that goes into it, barriers continue to be there. It involves us, but it also involves licencing bodies, educational institutions, employers, funders and governments. There are a number of players who have to participate in creating this coordination of services,” says Pond.

(This article was originally published in New Voices magazine’s special issue on Canadian experience.)

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