January 4, 2012

SMEs Benefit From Immigrant Talent But Many Still Face Barriers to Hiring IEPs

Seven hundred resumés. That’s how many Stefan Atton sent out in hopes of landing a marketing position. But lacking Canadian work experience he finally applied for an entry-level position, a delivery job at Steam Whistle Brewing in Toronto. The small brewery didn’t have an HR department so he strategically sent his resumé to Steam Whistle’s director of marketing.

Atton’s experience was through the roof — he’d worked in Sri Lanka and India as a brand and market manager for multinationals. Instead of the delivery job, he was hired as Steam Whistle’s marketing manager in 2002.

Few internationally educated professionals are so lucky. Despite unfilled jobs, 78 per cent of small businesses did not hire immigrants between 2003 and 2006, according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

Not only are the immigrants losing out, but so too are Canadian businesses. The small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that tap into this talent pool have reaped great success, says HR consultant Yogesh Shah.

For example, one Waterloo company has grown its business worldwide thanks to its 30 foreign trained employees who know 25 languages and a medical data company hires medical professionals from all over the world for the innovation they bring to the company’s research department.

In 2010, the people at Social Enterprise for Canada (SEC) sat down with representatives from SMEs in Ontario’s culturally diverse York Region to find out what’s stopping them from hiring internationally educated and trained professionals (IEPs). Their research was funded by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.

SEC heard employers’ concerns and published a report with key recommendations, which led to the launch of a new website for SMEs: Think Talent, Think Global.

Barriers to Hiring IEPs

Many employers want to hire immigrants but find it’s easier said than done. Here are some of the top barriers SMEs reported, and how the new website can help employers overcome them:

Credential recognition: Many employers don’t know whether, say, a Masters in Engineering from Singapore is equivalent to the same Masters here in Canada. The Think Talent, Think Global site devotes an entire section to resources that can help employers evaluate foreign credentials.

The problem of non-recognition goes deeper than just the common scenario of engineers driving taxis, says Kevin Kamal, client services manager at World Education Services (WES), a Washington, D.C.-based not-for-profit specializing in foreign credential recognition. “Let’s say a bank were hiring for a position that requires an MBA,” he says. “Of the six candidates who had MBAs, three of them might have an MBA from India. We encourage employers to evaluate those.”

Many foreign-trained professionals have qualifications equivalent to, or better than, their Canadian-trained counterparts. For instance, China has its own brand of Harvard, called Tsinghua University, and Indian schools have one of the toughest grading systems in the world, says Kamal. “A 60-per-cent grade there is equivalent to an A in Canada.”

Language proficiency: While working in Canada requires proficiency in English or French, the level of that proficiency matters more in some jobs than in others. The Think Talent, Think Global site devotes an entire section to the language barrier. It suggests things employers might not otherwise think of, such as paying attention to body language (and not just words) during the interview; interviewing in a culturally competent way; training the other staff on how to help integrate foreign workers; and investing in language training for the new hire.

Time and resources: Smaller businesses say they don’t have time to adopt new and complex HR strategies to hire internationally trained professionals. The Competency Assessment section of the new website offers another perspective on the time factor. Looking at what a candidate can do — rather than just his or her paper credentials — is worth the extra recruiting effort.

“Time was a deal breaker for SMEs,” says Bruce Millar, a consultant with SEC. “But if they actually took the time to deal with competency-based HR and operational systems, it would benefit them almost better than any other system I can think of.”

He suggests employers formally define the competencies they need to make their enterprise successful. Having this “competency framework” in place makes it easier to measure candidates’ ability to do the work they claim to be qualified for. It also helps evaluate staff performance, particularly at probation time.

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