Immigrant employment model goes national

Maytree Foundation wants to create ‘ALLIES’ across the country

Communities across the country want to replicate the success of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC) and similar organizations in Ottawa and Ontario’s Waterloo region, in helping skilled immigrants access employment.

Representatives from Vancouver, Edmonton, Hamilton, Niagara Falls, Ont., and Halifax have all approached Ratna Omidvar, executive director of the Maytree Foundation, a Toronto-based social justice organization and one of the major forces behind TRIEC, about replicating TRIEC’s model.

Helping immigrants overcome barriers to employment can be a jurisdictional nightmare and the best solution is a collaborative approach involving business, unions, occupational regulatory bodies, educational institutions, assessment service providers, community organizations and government, said Omidvar.

“The model is we all work together to arrive at a solution,” she said. “Yes, our government has to do certain things, but we can’t wait, we need to act.”

To help communities begin the process and then support them once they’re up and running, the Maytree Foundation, with support from the Montreal-based J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, is launching Assisting Local Leaders with the Employment of Skilled Immigrants (ALLIES).

Communities will be eligible for a maximum of $60,000 for startup costs during the initial consultation process, and then an additional $270,000 over three years once the project is up and running — as long as they have matching funds.

But more than money, ALLIES will provide a national learning hub. Some of the questions ALLIES will be able to answer include how to raise public awareness in the media, how to develop a policy framework, how to start a mentoring program and how to get businesses involved, said Omidvar, who hopes to begin handing out grants in November.

But cities have to want to do something about skilled immigrants in order for the program to work, said Omidvar.

“The communities have to be ready, willing and able,” she said.

And while the TRIEC model will help other communities get started, each community will have to adapt the model to suit its own individual needs.

For example, in Halifax, which doesn’t have a large skilled immigrant community, the focus will be on how to attract and retain skilled immigrants, whereas in Vancouver, which has an established immigrant community, the focus will be on how to gainfully employ those who are already there, said Omidvar.

“In every place it is going to look different, but in every place there are going to be some common elements,” she said.

The Waterloo Region Immigrant Employment Network (WRIEN) in Ontario’s Kitchener-Waterloo area is an example of how a community can modify the TRIEC model to suit its needs.

“They used the same principles but they organized themselves around different priorities,” said Omidvar. “It is much more of a community gathering of minds.”

The community-network model was essential to make WRIEN a success in a “community of barn builders” — people who work together instead of taking instruction from the top down — said Todd Letts, chair of WRIEN and president and chief executive officer of the Greater Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber of Commerce.

“We all bring something to the project and that’s why it’s called a network,” he said. “It takes a little longer, but it also builds buy-in and it wouldn’t work any other way in this community.”

In 2005, the region was the fifth most popular destination for new immigrants, according to Statistics Canada. But despite most of those immigrants having one or more degrees, the immigrant unemployment rate of 14 per cent was nearly three times that of the region’s, said Letts.

At the same time, businesses were having trouble filling positions, often going to New Jersey or California to find talent, he said.

To address this problem, the local Centre for Research in Education and Human Services and the chamber of commerce held an immigrant summit in April 2005. The summit involved six sectors of society: Immigrants, businesses, educational institutions, social service agencies and government and other funding bodies.

WRIEN, comprising representatives from those same six sectors, launched in May 2006.

In its first year, the network held a forum to show employers how to make the workplace more accommodating to immigrants, information sessions to help employers and immigrants understand the hurdles of recognizing international qualifications and a series of employer-immigrant forums to help employers recognize the talent available to them in the Kitchener-Waterloo area.

The network will launch internship and immigrant loan programs this fall, as well as a mentorship program that will match new immigrants with established professionals in their field.

“We’re talking about incremental change. We’re talking about changing attitudes and helping to bridge communication barriers, not just due to differences in languages, but bridging cultures,” said Letts.

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