West eyes Far East for jobs, students

B.C.’s jobs plan focuses on forestry, mining, agri-foods, technology, tourism, encourages employers to reach out to foreign students, provide cultural awareness training
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/25/2011

Mitacs, a not-for-profit research organization in Vancouver, is working on increasing its ties with Asian markets. It’s considering various ways of building a brand presence in Asia, sharing costs and staff with similar organizations overseas and exploring new, innovative arrangements, saidArvind Gupta, Mitacs’ CEO and scientific director.

“I think what we’re seeing is the Asian market becoming a driver of the world economy and I don’t think it’s a temporary thing… it’s a fundamental realignment,” said Gupta. “Places like China are going to be a bigger part of the world trading scene so for Canada, and B.C. in particular, our economy depends on trade. So having good links with them is going to be important.”

Increasing British Columbia’s ties with Asia is not only a priority for Mitacs but is starting to become top-of-mind for many employers in the province and for the provincial government itself.

Expanding markets for B.C. products and services, particularly in Asia, is one of the three pillars of the provincial government’s recently released Canada Starts Here: The BC Jobs Plan. The province currently has trades offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Seoul, Tokyo and India staffed by 80 employees — and the jobs plan outlines an intent to double that number, said Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation Pat Bell.

The second aspect of the jobs plan is to develop a hosting program to welcome inbound investors from the Asia Pacific. In working with local consul generals, the government is planning to support their work by showing individuals around the province, arranging meetings and connecting them with local businesses, said Bell.

“There’s lots of opportunity for direct investment into British Columbia, primarily from China and India, so we wanted to put a better face on B.C. from their perspective and demonstrate we’re an inviting, hospitable jurisdiction that rolls out the red carpet and is looking to help support their inbound investment,” he said.

B.C. will be particularly useful over the next decade in meeting the demands of a “whole new group of consumers” in Asia and South Asia, said Greg D’Avignon, president and CEO of the Business Council of British Columbia in Vancouver. These economies are growing by six per cent to 12 per cent per year and have the fastest growing middle classes in the world.

“So many people are moving into cities in China, they’re building out infrastructure equivalent to Metro Vancouver every month,” said D’Avignon. “Think of all the buildings, sewers, telecommunications, streets, amenities and infrastructures required to service that many people every month.”

To meet these demands, the provincial government has identified forestry, mining, natural gas, agri-foods, technology, tourism, transportation and international education as the eight sectors with “tremendous potential” to grow into Asia Pacific, said Bell. And its jobs plan focuses on these sectors.

Employers are also going to need to figure out how to meet these workforce needs over the next 20 years, said Gupta.

“Employers are going to be thinking where they’re going to get the kinds of people they need… and the number of workers they need,” he said. “You want to have a selection of workers to choose from and that diversity is important. The international market is going to be driven by people who understand that market.”

One way employers can battle the labour shortage is by reaching out to international students. And employers will have even more students to choose from as the province plans to increase the number of its international students — which currently sits at 94,000 — by 50 per cent over the next four years, said Bell.

“We all know people in their late teens, early 20s, formulate long-term relationships and we’re dealing with the business leaders of tomorrow who are, in my view, likely to come from China, Korea and India. I would love to have them spending time in British Columbia during those formative years so they look to B.C. when they’re doing business in the future,” he said.

Some students will also stay in the province after they have graduated which can help supply the workers that will be needed, said Gupta.

“If we go after the right kinds of foreign students, we get high-quality individuals that will add a lot of value,” he said. “As an employer, you’re getting individuals who are extremely gifted, hard-working and, on top of that, they understand the international market.”

Employers need to set up programs, such as co-op opportunities, to make it easy for international students to gain employment, said Gupta. This is a very cost-effective way to get to know the students, train them and then hire them to fill open positions, he said.

Attracting talent from the international market may be easier in B.C. than other parts of Canada thanks to its multicultural community, with a high concentration of Asian and South Asian cultures, said D’Avignon.

“(If I am from Asia), I can go into grocery stores where they have the products I see at home, I can speak the language I use at home, I can go to religious services and cultural activities consistent with my home, so it’s an easy place to be able to integrate,” he said.

HR professionals will need to focus on offering skills training to employees.

“We need to build our skill sets in terms of how we do business in China, India and Korea. We have some skills for Japan but HR needs to be clearly looking to develop skills in those areas to understand the needs of those markets and help people acquire those skills,” said Bell.

Language skills will be a key component of this development and B.C. employers should be looking to offer training in Portuguese, Mandarin and various Indian dialects, said D’Avignon.

Awareness training required

Employers should also provide cultural awareness training for the various markets they will be dealing with, he said. Employees should develop an appreciation for the Asian cultures, business practices and standards.

“For example, people who have dealt with Japan… know the standards and quality demanded by Japanese customers are quite different,” said D’Avignon. “Those kinds of expectations change by market and we need to make sure the workforce is engaged and understands and the company orients to those opportunities.”

Learn from locals

Employers should also strive to build relationships with Asian locals to learn from their expertise and gain insight on their home markets, said Gupta. Mitacs, which has 80 employees, had staff sit down with university professors who were from various parts of the world, especially China and India, to tap into that knowledge base, he said.

HR professionals play a key role in helping organizations expand into the Asian market, said D’Avignon.

“The success of a company, going forward… is going to be access to quality people who have the skills, training and intellect to drive opportunity,” he said. “So HR will be key to make sure their companies maintain competitive advantage with the talent and the number of people they have to make that capital productive.”

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