Helping Immigrant Workers Fit In

The Globe and Mail

By Marlene Habib

Toronto — Aileen Raquel knows all too well how tough it can be for an immigrant worker to adjust in Canada and why employers need to take their struggles seriously, especially as the country prepares for a projected influx of immigrant talent over the next 20 years.

Ms. Raquel, a social worker in her homeland of the Philippines, moved to Canada in 2003 because she was told it had the best jobs and benefits. Instead, she found herself working at a factory and in the fast-food business. “I had seven years of social work experience and I sent out countless résumés but did not receive a single response,” recalled Ms. Raquel, 37.

After three years of living below the poverty line, she turned to a bridging program at Toronto’s Ryerson University for guidance. With the help of a mentor and mock interviews with real employers, her self-confidence grew. In 2006, she landed a permanent job with her current employer, the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto.

Ms. Raquel, whose success story is highlighted in a travelling photo exhibit by the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC), and other foreign-born workers have benefited from many groundbreaking programs to help newcomers overcome barriers in the Canadian workplace, such as language and cultural issues.

Such initiatives will be even more important in the years to come. A recent Statistics Canada report suggests that, by 2031, one in three workers could be foreign-born, up from about one in five in 2006. Such a dramatic change in the labour force will make it even more important for employers to help immigrant workers adapt.

Government efforts such as the Canadian Immigration Integration Program help workers get jobs that recognize their experience and education. But helping them adjust on the job remains a “huge issue,” said Joan Atlin of TRIEC, which works with companies, governments and other organizations to help employers address diversity issues.

“While one challenge is to make the right connections between talent and companies, the other is to integrate them into the workplace quickly, and a lot of employers don’t think about how those differences play into the workplace,” said Ms. Atlin, the not-for-profit group’s director of programs.

One common myth is that immigrants must have Canadian work experience to be effective employees, experts say.

“It’s a misconception that Canadian experience is absolutely required, and we’ve done a good job to show the way we hire people has evolved,” said Matt Petersen, director of diversity strategies at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Toronto. That involved changing the thought processes of company hiring managers, he said.

Navigating the interview process can trip up newcomers, as Ms. Raquel discovered. That’s why companies such as CIBC and discount brokerage Questrade Inc. conduct “behavioural-based” job interviews, so that cultural differences and the applicants’ lack of Canadian work experience don’t undercut their changes of being hired.

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