Delivering a solution for skills shortages

Canada's record in integrating immigrants into the labour market is abysmal

In Canada these days, getting a family doctor is no easy task. Doctors, specialists, physiotherapists and nurses are in short supply. Recruiters in many other industries are also gearing up for a skills shortage. However, the situation is not as dire as it seems.

There are many trained professionals who could fill the roles that need to be filled. Unfortunately many of them — trained health-care workers, IT professionals, accountants, tool-and-die makers — are currently delivering pizzas, driving taxis, working in low-paying jobs that don’t make use of their skills. Others are doing volunteer work to get Canadian experience.

To solve the skills shortage, they need to be redeployed to the jobs they are trained for, and where they are most needed. HR professionals can play a key role in making that happen.

Canada’s record in integrating immigrants into the labour market is abysmal. Sixty per cent of highly skilled immigrants take jobs in fields completely unrelated to their training. The rates of unemployment, underemployment and poverty for recent immigrants are substantially worse than they used to be. This is a problem that has to be solved, because in seven short years immigrants will account for practically all of Canada’s labour force growth. Skill shortages, already prevalent, will be exacerbated. If other countries do a better job leveraging the talent of newcomers, Canada will be put at a competitive disadvantage.

The best time to recognize the need for change is when your back’s against the wall. Several provinces including Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba are stepping up efforts to better integrate immigrants. But, as with any complex problem, success depends on everyone doing their part — governments at all levels, educational institutions, self-governing professions (some of which have acted as gatekeepers protecting their current members), community agencies, immigrants themselves and employers. A serious and co-ordinated effort by all players is needed to fix what is now a patchwork quilt. Here is what employers can do.

Relax the “Canadian experience” requirement: Remember when you finished school and couldn’t get a job because you didn’t have any experience — and you didn’t have any experience because you couldn’t get a job? How frustrating was that? That’s exactly what many internationally trained professionals and tradespeople go through. The requirement for Canadian experience is a systemic barrier not allowed under Canadian human rights legislation unless it can be justified as a bona fide occupational qualification, which is very hard to do. So, first of all, don’t ask or look for Canadian experience (even implicitly). Rather, look for the skills and competencies needed for the job and recognize that they may manifest themselves in different ways based on a person’s cultural background.

Recruitment and selection practices should be audited for cultural bias — getting rid of “Canadian experience” as a criterion can be done with the stroke of a computer key. What’s harder is to ensure that recruitment and selection systems don’t inadvertently screen out qualified people.

I’m amazed at how often selection criteria are vague and rife with subjective factors that can easily play into cultural stereotypes. How many companies have selection criteria that recognize the value of people who know two or more languages and have significant first-hand knowledge of different cultures? How about criteria that place value on the adaptability that immigrants have shown?

All too often, people judge a foreign accent negatively even though the person can be perfectly well understood. Similarly, if highly qualified people use the wrong words for technical terms, remember that they’re smart enough, not to mention resilient enough, to have navigated the immigration maze. It’s therefore a pretty good bet they will be able to learn the technical language they need. A broad view needs to be taken, looking at the longer-term value of the person rather than the immediate short term.

Facilitate access to that first job: Companies can participate in internship and bridging programs offered through educational institutions and community agencies to give newcomers the experience they need. Programs such as Ontario’s Career Bridge give employers an opportunity to assess highly qualified, competent and motivated people as they do real work, with little risk or investment on the part of the employer.

Make employee orientation more supportive: Nowadays educational institutions and community associations are more likely to cover the waterfront in their offerings for newcomers. There is a program at George Brown College in Toronto for IT professionals, which exposes newcomers to business-language training, teamwork, presentations, attendance at North American business meetings and social functions and the legal environment for employment. It’s good practice to reinforce important aspects of working in Canada, along with the company’s ethics, values and important policies, as part of new employee sign-on. When you’re asking people to change the habits of a lifetime more support trumps less every time.

Make it someone’s job to help the newcomer succeed: Regardless of whether a newcomer comes directly to the company or through an internship program, it helps to have an assigned coach or mentor. Without someone to explain how things work and what is expected — both the norms and the many subtleties — immigrants can violate rules they don’t even know exist. These can run the gamut from accepted social behaviour to dress codes to ways people in the company communicate with one another. In the course of a consulting project I once interviewed a chartered accountant who was educated in two countries before she came to Canada as an adult. She was a sophisticated, multilingual person who, nevertheless, had never experienced a Canadian winter or even seen snow before. The first social event for her department at a large financial company was a tobogganing party. She told me how grateful she was for the help offered by a self-appointed coach who came to her and said, “This is important. You have to attend.” Her coach helped her to fit in, to feel and show that she was part of the team, and to let people get to know her as a person.

Make sure your people are cross-culturally savvy: Effectively integrating immigrants requires that companies show they value diversity. Culture affects the entire way people perceive and deal with the world – how we communicate, how we view authority, our expectations of gender roles and behaviour, our concept of time, the role of religion, who we consider close family. People need to understand the many ways in which cultures differ so they don’t misinterpret behaviour. So it only makes sense to educate everyone, starting with the firm’s recruiters and leaders, on cross-cultural understanding and competence.

Cultural diversity expert Lionel Laroche says that when recruiters “don’t understand cultural differences they may reject good candidates even for trivial reasons, for example saying in a resume covering letter, ‘I pray to God that you will consider my application.’”

Go beyond traditional training to enhance the cross-cultural competence of your people. Encourage recruiters and leaders to involve themselves in organizations serving the interests of newcomers. There’s nothing like exposure to increase comfort and bring down barriers.

Support the community that’s helping you: Resources are always an issue when we need to make change. Corporate backing enables educational institutions and community groups to help employers fill skills gaps faster with trained people. Canada’s business sector already provides a lot of support to educational institutions; now companies need to turn their attention to programs for internationally trained professionals.

Lynne Sullivan is president of Lynne Sullivan & Associates Inc., a human resource consulting firm specializing in diversity and employment equity. She can be reached at (416) 306-2243 or [email protected].

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