Work Placement Program a Win-Win for Skilled Immigrants and Assiniboine Credit Union

The 12-week placement also includes 4 weeks of culture and communication training.

When the opportunity to participate in a work experience program for new immigrants presented itself in 2004, Asssiniboine Credit Union (ACU) in Winnipeg, MB jumped at the chance.

“We are very much a company that is all about diversity and inclusion. We wanted to ensure we mirrored the community we work in,” says Cherie Gebhardt, Employment Specialist at the credit union.

The Immigrant Integration Program (IIP) has run every year since with ACU taking in about four participants for a 12-week work placement each year. Over the past eight years, the credit union has hired 39 participants from the program. Of those, 31 still work at ACU and there have been 12 promotions, says Ms. Gebhardt.

Elvira, an immigrant from Uzbekistan, took part in the IIP about five years ago and, was hired full time as a Member Service Representative (MSR). She was promoted to a Senior Member Service Representative last year, a position that involves coaching other MSRs, says Cheryl Pope, Manager of Member Service at a branch in Winnipeg.

“It’s unbelievable how much she has grown,” she says. “In one year she’ll be a Manager of Member Service and in charge of her own branch.”

Getting Started

Cambrian Credit Union approached ACU about joining them in the Manitoba government-funded IIP in 2004. “They initiated it. We were totally on board with it,” says Ms. Gebhardt.

The program, targeted to new immigrants, was such a success that three more credit unions joined the following year: Steinbach Credit Union, Portage la Prairie Credit Union and Astra Credit Union (which has since merged with Assiniboine).

There were 250 applicants for the most recent round of hirings in 2011. While banking experience is important, other strong sales and customer service experience is also considered. Applicants also need a Canadian Language Benchmark level 7 because the nature of the work is communication intensive, says Ms. Gebhardt.

Based on their applications, 36 newcomers were interviewed over the phone and the top 24 candidates were invited in for a face-to-face interview.

Finally, 10 were chosen to participate in the program, which started with a paid, four-week culture and communication course followed by a 12-week work placement at one of the credit unions. Four participants were placed at ACU, four at Cambrian and four at Steinbach. (Because of its smaller size, Portage la Prairie Credit Union doesn’t participate every year.)

The participants work as front-line Member Service Representatives but there’s more to the job than simply cash transactions, says Ms. Gebhardt. There’s a high level of customer service and sales, including building relationships with members to best connect them with the appropriate services.

As such, the culture and communication training is essential to the participants’ success. The training includes both social “small talk” based on current events and more banking-specific communication. During the training, participants role play and shadow Member Service Representatives to get a feel for how the job is done and how employees interact with each other and the credit union’s members.

Cultural Differences

Even after participants are hired into permanent roles, they continue to learn how to adapt to Canadian workplace culture, as well as ACU’s culture, says Ms. Pope. She has worked with about seven IIP participants since 2004 and whose current team includes three employees who were once in the IIP.

For example, ACU Member Service Representatives are talkative and outgoing, offering members additional services without first asking a manager. But in the Philippines, where some of Ms. Pope’s employees have immigrated from, tellers politely serve customers but aren’t supposed to engage them in conversation or ask if there was something else they could help them with because that is the sole domain of managers.

“As long as they have a coach to help them with the cultural adaptation, they can be unbelievably successful at ACU,” she says.

As a manager, Ms. Pope feels it’s her responsibility to find out where skilled immigrant employees have worked before, what the job entailed and what the culture was like. Once she understands where the employee is coming from, then she can help him or her better adapt to the job and the culture at ACU.

For example, one of the skilled immigrants Ms. Pope worked with had worked at an agricultural company in her country of origin. So Ms. Pope found what her job and duties were and then translated those experiences to what was expected in the ACU job so she would better understand the role.

“It’s about communication,” she says.

A Win-Win Opportunity

The goal of the program is to ensure these talented professionals are working in jobs that are appropriate to their skills, says Ms. Gebhardt, but the credit union also benefits from their diverse experiences and backgrounds.

For example, 45 languages are spoken by ACU employees, thanks in part to the IIP. When a member, who is also new to Canada, has problems or concerns, there is likely someone on staff who shares a similar background and language and can help the member more effectively than a Canadian-born employee, she says.

Tips for Employers

  • Include culture and communication training as part of work placement programs to help skilled immigrants succeed faster in their jobs.
  • Encourage managers to find out about skilled immigrant employees’ previous experiences to translate the current role and culture into terms the employee will better understand.
  • Provide opportunities for advancement to engage and retain employees.

Assiniboine Credit Union is a financial co-operative with 23 branches in Winnipeg and a branch in Gillam, MB, and Thompson, MB. The credit union has 108,000 members and 550 employees.

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