Labour force growth depends on immigrants

Newcomers accounted for 70 per cent of the growth in the labour force in the last decade
By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/19/2003

Due to Canada’s aging population, in eight years’ time, almost all labour force growth will be made up by immigrant workers.

In the last decade, nearly 70 per cent of the growth in the labour force were accounted for by newcomers who arrived in the 1990s, according to Census 2001 data by Statistics Canada. As the “baby boom” generation retires, the labour force will increasingly become reliant on immigrant workers. By 2011, new immigrants are expected to make up for almost all of the labour force growth, said the Statistics Canada report. As of May 2001, almost one out of five people in the labour force were born outside Canada.

Responding to this eventuality, some employers are rethinking their strategies and programs with the overall aim to make the best use of immigrant talent.

For HR heads like Dick Duchemin at the Town of Ajax, Ont., reaching out to newcomers to fill positions means adopting an open mind about the skills and contributions people have to offer.

“What we’re trying to do is change the way we value diversity. So, if people on a hiring panel see somebody with different experience or who comes from a different country or who appears to be different in any way, they would see that person as a potential advantage to have in the work group. They would have different experiences to bring to the team,” said Duchemin, who heads a workforce of about 260 full-time and 260 seasonal and part-time staff.

What this means is town managers train all employees — because “almost anybody could end up on a hiring panel around here” — to consider candidates who might not have municipal or public-sector experience.

“We believe that in a work team where everybody contributes something, the wider the base of experiences and backgrounds you have, the more likely you are to come up with best solutions — especially if your customers come from the same wide background as well,” said Duchemin.

Despite ongoing efforts, Duchemin is still unhappy with the town’s ability to reach the entire array of potential candidates, he said. That’s why he’s approaching the Social Development Council of Ajax and Pickering and similar community groups to publicize new openings.

At IBM Canada, a visible minority council regularly reviews workplace policies and programs to see if specific needs of visible minority employees are met, said diversity director Susan Turner. For example, the company used to offer English as a Second Language (ESL) training for employees in Toronto, Turner said. Upon review, managers realized that ESL needs exist right across the country; now, the company links employees who need ESL courses with outside trainers, regardless of their location, said Turner.

Up next on the council’s agenda, added Turner, is soft-skills training targeted at visible minority groups, which would address topics such as communication styles.

“There are hierarchical cultures where it’s not within the culture to challenge the supervisor, or at least, you wait until you’re asked. If we’re working in an environment where everybody has equal participation, we need first of all to educate everyone to understand the hierarchical culture. Then we need to invite people to participate. So we need to do both: to understand the cultures of our employees, and to work on people understanding the IBM culture,” said Turner.

“The point is, it’s important for companies and businesses to get ahead of the game. We need to be proactive rather than reactive. I think it’s going to be the progressive and proactive organizations that stand out as we see new immigrants coming into the workforce with different requirements.”

Lauri Robertson, vice-president of the Diversity and Employment Equity Professionals Association, said an immigrant workforce doesn’t necessarily mean that concepts like corporate culture or employee profiling are obsolete.

“Corporate culture is more than just racial culture. It’s about whether it’s okay to walk into the boss’ room, or whether you have to make an appointment first. There are people from any culture and any race who are informal, and others who are formal. So getting a cultural fit is still a good idea,” said Robertson.

“It’s when bosses say, ‘Everybody who works here has to know how to play golf’ that it becomes a bad thing. That’s when your corporate culture is used to screen people out, and the organization loses good people.”

At outplacement firm Thomson DBM, senior consultant Steve Connor said companies have to take cultural awareness to deeper levels.

“To take for example a simple fact none of us can ignore: one out of five people in the world is Chinese. We need to understand more than just the customs, you know, the place of honour and so on. We need to understand thought patterns and realize when you work on team building, for example, that plain speaking is a bit foreign to them and so on.”

It’s not a question of whether people can or should adapt to the new country that matters, added Connor. “Of course people can adapt. What we need to do is to maximize the ability of people work with us, but in a way that makes sense for them."

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