The immigrant imperative: Why Canada can’t afford to continue to waste the skills of newcomers (Guest Commentary)

Attracting and integrating new immigrants into the community, workforce and economy important over next few years

Immigration has historically been critical to Canada’s growth, yet there has seldom been a time in Canada’s history where immigration has been so important. In the next 20 years, we stand to gain more — or lose more — depending on how we handle immigration over the next few years. We must not only attract, but also improve how well we integrate new immigrants into our communities, our workforce and our economy.

Canada’s standard of living has lagged behind that of the United States for the last 25 years. Our competitive advantage is no longer driven by the resource industry, or by capital assets like plants, equipment and machinery. It is being driven by our ability to tap human capital so we can develop technology, improve productivity and develop creatively.

But Canada is a small nation. Our national birth rate just hit an historic low, and the workforce is aging. Clearly, we are going to have to import talented people to make up the gap, not just for labour intensive jobs, but for all levels. The global war for talent is heating up, and we’ll be going head-to-head with countries like Italy, Spain and Germany, whose birth-rates are falling as dramatically as ours, and whose workforce is also greying as quickly as ours.

And finally, globalization has presented us with new game and a whole set of new players, like China and India, which are investing heavily in higher education, technology and innovation. China is graduating three times the number of engineers that graduate in the United States. And many Chinese immigrants are actually leaving the West to go back to China, because they see better opportunities at home.

The Canadian government has set a target of welcoming 300,000 new immigrants each year, or about one per cent of our existing population. New Canadians make up about 70 per cent of the growth in the Canadian labour force. By 2011, they will account for all the growth in our workforce.

So our success depends not only on our ability to attract new immigrants, but on providing an environment where new Canadians can maximize their potential. This can be Canada’s competitive advantage — and Toronto is the flash point.

Historically, we don’t have the best track record in this area — and I hope that is about to change.

The federal government’s “Internationally Trained Workers Initiative” is a step forward for our nation, and I commend the government for its action and leadership.

Yet no level of government can bear the burden alone. Governments can attract skilled immigrants to Canada, but once they have arrived, businesses have to pick up the ball.

But we have not.

In fact, we’re dropping it — at least according to the Public Policy Forum. In a survey conducted with more than 2,000 Canadian employers in 2004, the forum found three pieces of discouraging news:

•employers overlook immigrants in their human resource planning;

•they don’t hire immigrants at the level at which they were trained; and

•employers say they face challenges integrating recent immigrants into their workforce.

The Conference Board of Canada goes one step further, saying that Canadian companies are almost myopic about connecting the dots between Canada’s aging workforce and the impending skill shortages in the workforce. In a recent report, called Business Critical, the Conference Board asserts that businesses just aren’t seeing the solution staring us in the face: maximizing the talents of visible minorities and immigrants.

This solution will bring untold benefits for our businesses, our communities and our country — and will have a profound human impact as well.

RBC sets a high premium on diversity. I chair our Diversity Leadership Council, made up of senior leaders from across our businesses. Just to let you know how important this issue is, I can tell you that it is the only committee other than my executive committee that I sit on.

This council sets RBC’s strategy and goals for diversity and employment equity, as well as monitoring our progress. We meet quarterly to make sure the talent pipeline is being filled with qualified candidates from diverse groups, as well as tracking the results of our recruitment efforts, promotions and terminations. Each of our businesses has targets and objectives with respect to gender, people with disabilities and visible minorities so we can measure our success (or lack thereof), rather than just talking a good game.

And just as a point of interest, we’ve proven that developing a strategy and setting goals really does work.

For example, we set our focus on women in the late ’70s. Our first woman director joined the board of directors in 1976, and we appointed our first woman executive in 1979. Currently, women make up about one-third of our management ranks in North America — a number we are working hard to increase. I’m hoping we have the same kind of success with people who are visible minorities, because if we can, it will mean we took full advantage of this opportunity.

Currently, about 24 per cent of our workforce is comprised of visible minorities, as is 10 per cent of our executive management team — some were born outside of Canada, while others are children of immigrants. Those numbers are still too low, but we’re moving in the right direction, and are developing programs to help better integrate new employees into our workforce.

For example, we have mentoring arrangements and English business language classes available to new employees, and even developed cross-cultural awareness training for our recruitment and human resource professionals.

One of the largest barriers to employment for skilled immigrants is in the area of foreign credentials. The government’s Internationally Trained Worker Initiative has an entire program dedicated to this — but businesses can do their part as well.

One small example from RBC: We used to ask prospective employees to provide the name of the institution where they received their degrees or accreditations on our application form. But if our recruiting staff weren’t familiar with the institution, we risked passing over qualified foreign candidates. So we removed that field entirely from our application — and follow up on credentials and education later in the process. We hope this quick fix will move us one step closer toward bias-free hiring.

We don’t have all the answers, but we know that if we have a strong reputation for valuing diversity, we will be able to draw from a broader pool of Canadian and international talent. Once those candidates become our employees, we will see a bottom-line benefit for the company.

So while we do believe in the “social justice” imperative of diversity, I personally believe that it is the business case that will ultimately generate results for most companies. Most people believe in social justice, but the business case can really propel them into action, even outside of their comfort zone.

The bottom line is that, for businesses, diversity is both a great opportunity and the right thing to do. I believe that a personal commitment from senior business leaders must filter through the entire organization, so that companies can unleash the full potential of all our people and our teams. And in doing so, we’ll discover that unleashing the power of diversity and capitalizing on immigration will become a competitive advantage for Canada, and a source of national pride.

Gordon Nixon is president and CEO of RBC Financial Group, and a supporter of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council’s initiatives to address the under-utilization of skilled immigrants.

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