Out of Africa

One HR practitioner’s tale of how she came to Canada and the hurdles she faced in finding a job

Three short years ago, Fari Munjanja was at the top of the human resources world in Zimbabwe, a country of 13 million people in southern Africa. She was the director of HR at a large holding company with thousands of employees in the mining and manufacturing sector.

Her quality of life was high as was her satisfaction at work. She spent her days doing what many HR professionals dream of: being strategic and working closely with senior management and the board of directors to find ways to help HR push the company to new heights. Because she worked for a conglomerate she was often called upon to advise managers in other companies.

But she kept thinking of another place, one thousands of kilometers away where’d she spent one frigid winter as a foreign exchange student in 1991 — Canada. Munjanja attended one semester at Fleming College in Peterborough, Ont. She liked what she saw and wanted to come back permanently.

“I liked the country, the people and my dream had been to get out of Africa,” she said. “I’d been to England, but I liked Canada better.”

She delayed coming right away because her daughters were still little and she wanted to get more experience as an HR practitioner. She had a diploma in HR management, a bachelor of commerce degree and majored in industrial psychology and business management.

In 2000 she decided she was ready to uproot her family and make the move. At the time, the political situation in Zimbabwe was relatively stable and Munjanja said she didn’t leave because of economic or political problems. It took two years to complete all the paperwork and get the green light to immigrate. When she did, she landed in Oshawa, Ont., full of hope with 10 years of experience in HR, the latter part of it at a very senior level.

She came to Oshawa because a friend arranged for her to stay at a hotel in the city, just east of Toronto, while she looked for a job. But she was willing to go anywhere in the country a decent job led her.

She had her credentials evaluated by World Education Services, a not-for-profit agency that benchmarks foreign credentials against Canadian ones, and was told her education was equivalent to a three-year degree in Canada.

“I was under the understanding that with my experience and qualifications I wouldn’t have a problem getting a job,” said Munjanja. “And when I saw all these jobs being posted in the newspapers and on the website, I thought, ‘Oh hey. I’ll soon be getting a job.’”

She sent out so many resumés that she lost count, but got less than 10 calls back. Munjanja went for a couple of interviews, but was repeatedly told she was overqualified. With money running tight, she had to give up her pursuit of an HR career and settle for any work she could find.

“I had to feed myself and my family, so I did start working at a call centre,” she said.

She stayed at the call centre for about three months until she saw a posting for an HR position with Community Living Peterborough, a not-for-profit agency that helps people with disabilities.

She had a good vibe from her first interview. Community Living was using a consultant to recruit the position.

“I think maybe he was a bit more open-minded because I told him, ‘Look. I’ve been to other interviews. This is the problem that I face, that I’m told I’m overqualified,’” said Munjanja. “He told me that my qualifications were a plus, that my experience was a plus and he didn’t see why I shouldn’t be considered like anybody else. He said, ‘I’ve interviewed you and I think you can do the job and I’m going to put your name forward.’”

She landed the job. It took her six months from the day she landed in Canada to find a position in her field.

“That’s not bad at all, especially when I hear about other people’s stories,” she said.

What’s different about HR in Canada?

Munjanja said the basic principles of HR are the same in Zimbabwe as Canada — managing people is an extremely portable skill, she said. Recruitment, training and compensation aren’t really different.

But employment law was a different matter.

“In Canada, you’re really dealing a lot with human rights,” she said. “You’ve got more employment laws than where I was coming from.”

She enrolled in an employment law course at a college as soon as she got to Canada. She also took a course in labour relations.

The work she is doing in Peterborough is also very different. No longer is she free to spend her time on strategic initiatives — she’s at an operational level now. The HR department consists of herself and a payroll administrator.

“I tend to deal with everything and I don’t have enough time to concentrate on strategic issues,” she said. “I had less to do with the day-to-day issues in Zimbabwe, so in terms of having enough time to sit down and think and say, ‘Okay. How can HR contribute to the strategic direction of the organization?’ it’s totally different.”

She still enjoys the work, and likes working for Community Living, but it’s an adjustment and a significant step-down from what she was doing. But she’s happy.

“Coming here is like starting all over again,” said Munjanja. “I don’t believe that I can ever get back to where I was in Zimbabwe. But you have to look at life and adjust. I know it will be better, but it will never be the level of life that I had in Zimbabwe.”

Hesitant to recommend Canada to friends

Munjanja said she would hesitate in recommending Canada as a destination for a colleague in Zimbabwe.

“I would say to them, maybe come here for a while, maybe do a volunteer job,” she said, because the issue of employers wanting Canadian experience is very frustrating. Ideally, it would be best if they had a job lined up before they came, but that’s extremely difficult to do.

“I would say, ‘Look. Be prepared to come, but you need to be very open minded and you need to be prepared that you may not get the job you’ve been working at within six months,’” she said.

She said networking would really help immigrants land jobs. That’s one thing she felt was really lacking during her job search. It would have been easier to find a job if she had the opportunity to network with HR professionals.

She said a centre in Peterborough that is designed to help immigrants is great for tips on preparing a resumé and how to conduct oneself in an interview, but it doesn’t give immigrants a chance to network or a lead in terms of where to volunteer or connect with businesses to get the opportunity to volunteer.

How her family adjusted

By the time she came to Canada in 2002, one of her daughters was attending university in the United States, so there wasn’t much of an adjustment for her. But her other daughter had a terrible time at first. She moved back to Zimbabwe for a while, but eventually returned to Canada and is doing fine now.

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