It’s an oft-told story in Canada: Educated immigrants arrive only to be told they don’t have the credentials or work experience to be hired in their chosen field. Even when they do, firms may be unwilling to take the risk of hiring a foreign worker.
Several Ottawa-area employers are trying to reverse the trend and were recently recognized for their work recruiting and retaining skilled immigrants at the Hire Immigrants Ottawa Employer Awards.
The awards are as much about recognizing employers that are leveraging the talents of foreign-trained workers as they are about encouraging other organizations to take a similar step, said Henry Akanko, director of the community-based initiative.
“It helps to be able to show that organizations are creating opportunities for foreign-trained individuals to find work in their fields,” he said. “We know there isn’t a silver bullet or single strategy to fix the challenge we have with hiring internationally trained employees.”
Retention award, large employer: MBNA Canada
MBNA Canada, an affiliate of Bank of America, has made diversity a key business driver, with hiring strategies to attract and retain skilled and professional immigrants. In 2010, the bank hired 57 skilled immigrants in a variety of positions, but the challenge doesn’t end there, said Donna Rennie, senior vice-president of human resources and country manager at Bank of America for Canada.
“It’s easy to recruit, it’s hard to retain,” she said. “It’s about the system on a day-to-day basis.”
MBNA has established five associate affinity groups to eliminate barriers to inclusion, including two in Canada — the Black Professional Group and the Asian Leadership Network. These employee groups provide a forum for associates to promote their culture and offer a consultative voice to the organization.
“They are the pulse,” said Rennie. “They come from within the organization and they can pinpoint where we need help or what we might need to reinforce.”
In addition to providing cross-cultural insight, the affinity groups are often the impetus for company initiatives. Last year, MBNA partnered with Graybridge Malkam to conduct a survey of MBNA’s leadership to test their cultural awareness.
“There is a list of things for us to do,” said Rennie. “Now the affinity groups will help build the programs around that.”
MBNA has also made “Embrace the power of our people” a core value. In performance reviews, organizations often focus on what people achieve instead of how they achieved the results, said Rennie. At the bank, leaders are accountable annually for tying their performance results to competencies such as creating an environment where people feel included.
“It said a lot to our employees. It said, ‘I matter and I’m as important as anyone else.’ People need to feel welcome and secure,” said Rennie.
Recruitment award, large-size employer: Citizenship and Immigration Canada
The Federal Internship for Newcomers (FIN) program is the little initiative that grew. The program offers skilled immigrants an opportunity to gain valuable Canadian work experience by working in a paid internship at a federal government agency or department in Ottawa for up to eight months.
“It’s sufficient time for newcomers to develop a better understanding of the Canadian workplace and gain that valuable work experience that is often a barrier,” said Mary Da Costa Lauzon, co-ordinator of FIN at Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC).
The program’s roots go back to two pilot projects in 2008, one at CIC and the other at Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.
Since then, the program has doubled in size, offering more than 70 work placements to newcomers in 11 federal departments and agencies, with an additional 20 federal organizations interested in coming on board this fall.
Two key components of the program are cross-cultural training and mentorship. Cross-cultural training benefits managers who may be unfamiliar with some cultural differences, said Da Costa Lauzon. It also benefits newcomers who may be working in their field in Canada for the first time and may not understand some of the cultural norms.
Mentorship is also crucial. Interns are matched with someone other than their supervisor to assist them with networking, career planning and developing skills.
“When we’re more proactive with our outreach, the outcomes are truly better,” said Da Costa Lauzon.
Several interns have gone on to full-time jobs within the public service and private sector, while others have pursued more education. The program has been so successful, there are plans to expand it to Toronto and Vancouver this fall, she said.
Retention award, small-size employer: Vanier Community Service Centre
When employees at the Vanier Community Service Centre heard about the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, their first response was to rally around their colleagues. In a workplace where skilled immigrants from 16 foreign countries make up 43 per cent of the staff, there’s plenty of understanding. So senior managers offered time off and colleagues organized a fundraising luncheon.
“Whether we are dealing with planning services or everyday activities, our immigrant colleagues enjoy sharing their expertise and know-how,” said executive director Michel Gervais. “One of the key contributors to the harmony and cohesion of our team is that there is no such thing as ‘them’ or ‘us.’”
Vanier posts all jobs through its network of immigrant serving agencies. Its flexible recruitment process also recognizes the difficulties new immigrants face in terms of qualifications and experience.
Based on the comments and experience of employees, Vanier Community Service Centre has also added new initiatives such as an employability program that helps immigrant women gain work experience.
Danielle Harder is a Brooklin, Ont.-based freelance writer.
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