Uncapping hidden talents of internationally trained professionals (Guest commentary)

Communication training can remove numerous barriers

Employers hear the message repeatedly: The workplace is changing. Oft-quoted projections from Statistics Canada show, by 2011, immigration will account for virtually all net labour market growth.

But there’s a problem — and it’s not the stereotypical engineer driving a taxi, unable to find work in his field. It’s that many gifted, internationally trained professionals (ITPs), having secured employment in their field, eventually become frustrated with barriers to career success.

Despite their technical talents, they may find themselves assigned a narrow range of work duties, excluded from direct customer contact, leadership opportunities and normal career advancement. That’s because their language skills are often lacking and employers don’t know how to resolve this dilemma.

Not all training is suitable

While many employers have recognized both the barriers and the need for communication skills development for ITPs, not all training options fit the bill. Employers must assess which content is most crucial: Core language skills, strategic business communication skills or cultural awareness.

Core language skills: The basics — pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary — are an obvious starting place. But workplace communication performance improvements can be painfully incremental. Grammatical and linguistic skills can be measured with the 12-level Canadian Language Benchmark system, which states 300 hours of instruction are required to advance one single level. What workplace could afford this commitment to training, and how many professionals would tolerate the pace?

Strategic communication skills: These skills are a potential target for development, particularly in workplaces involving teamwork, customer interface or leadership roles. In navigating complex interpersonal interactions, strategic skills such as persuasion, problem solving, rapport building, concise-thought presentation and active listening are crucial. A modest amount of training in these areas can bring noticeable gains in on-the-job communication.

Unfortunately, the training often lacks the linguistic substance required by ITPs — along with ample opportunity to practise them in work-related scenarios. Training managers should assess whether the training offers an appropriate combination of linguistic training and pragmatic interpersonal depth.

Intercultural awareness: This is another essential area of development for ITPs. At play in the workplace are largely unconscious, cultural assumptions that go beyond issues of visible attributes and lifestyle such as dress, holidays and cuisine. When deeper issues — expectations about hierarchical work relationships, team roles, risk tolerance and directness of communication — are brought to the surface and demystified, the effect can be significant on career mobility, collegial rapport and customer service.

When a new employee is frustrated by her manager’s “weak leadership,” while her manager has labeled the worker as “high-need,” this is likely a culturally based role issue. When a project team meeting polarizes into two camps — blunt expressions of opinion on one side and eye-avoiding reticence on the other — cultural factors may be at play, with parties on both sides puzzling over why their leadership efforts have not been acknowledged. This interpersonal quagmire can undermine productivity and employee engagement, and increase the likelihood of driving away highly skilled and motivated employees.

So what works?

A new hybrid of training is emerging to meet the needs of a dynamic, culturally diverse work environment populated by highly educated ITPs.

Training programs should include strategic business skills such as persuasion and active listening, enriched with a context-relevant matrix of English language skills. They also offer the key to unlocking workplace interpersonal interactions by enhancing awareness of culturally based assumptions and behaviours.

For employers whose goal is to attract, develop, retain and promote top talent of international origin, hybrid communication training can be a godsend. It enables ITPs to engage as full contributors in the workplace and to progress through the expected stages of career development. Uncapping the talent of these high-level professionals pays handsome dividends in an organization’s success and growth.

Teresa McGill is president of Gandy Associates, a training company based in Mississauga, Ont., specializing in communications education. For more information, visit www.gandy.ca.

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