Monday January 26, 2009

By Tavia Grant, The Globe and Mail

REPORT ON DIVERSITY: HIRING IMMIGRANTS

Stories of skilled immigrants who can't find suitable work in Canada have been legion. But as awareness spreads of what employers have been missing, opportunities are growing.
In 1906, a young man named Samuel Cohen arrived in Montreal with nothing more than a few dollars in his pocket and the name of a shop owner who happened to come from his village in the Ukraine. This newcomer spoke neither English nor French and knew not a soul.

He got lucky. The shop owner gave the man space in the corner of his store to start a shoe-repair service. Years of hard work, and the operation expanded into socks. Eventually, it became a successful Montreal-based clothing store.

More than a century later, and Sam's grandson, David, is hoping to replicate his grandfather's success by establishing an online social network between immigrants in the process of coming to Canada, and established Canadians who can offer advice on how to find jobs and settle in the country.

"Were it not for the generosity of that shop owner, who really wasn't a friend of his but who was willing to help out someone from the same hometown, it would have been much harder," says Mr. Cohen, an immigration lawyer for the past 25 years.

His grandfather's experience, and years of observation in his own work that immigrants who find meaningful work in Canada tend to have connections here, is the inspiration for a social networking website he launched this month. He calls it "Facebook with a purpose," and the site, Loon Lounge, has already chalked up 15,000 members from 191 countries.

"The idea is to find a way for people to connect even before they're here. And it's based on the premise that people, when they are here, are willing to help."

So now someone from, say Nigeria, can post a profile and find people in Canada from his hometown. A professional engineer from India could ask questions about job availability in different cities. Or a Canadian hospital recruiter can find and hire a nurse from the Philippines before she even arrives in the country.

It's one of several new ideas popping up across Canada to better integrate immigrants into the work force. And as employers realize that hiring newcomers is good for business — boosting trade ties, generating new ideas and helping serve ethnic communities more effectively — they too, are rethinking old practices.

"We've adapted our interviewing techniques for newcomers," says Daniela Perciasepe, director of human resources at Enbridge Gas Distribution Inc. in Toronto.

That's after noticing many new Canadians, nervous about a job interview and anxious about their English, sometimes had trouble understanding or answering questions. It's not that they weren't qualified. It was that the formal interview environment was clouding their responses.

So, when interviewing newcomers for Enbridge's internship program, the company now lets them arrive an hour early. It distributes the questions in advance and gives people a chance to clarify wording and think over their answers.

"We recognized we would get a better sense of their strengths if we reduced their anxiety levels," Ms. Perciasepe says.

Enbridge's motivation to try and attract more immigrants is twofold: It wants to ensure its workers reflect the local community, and it recognizes that new Canadians will soon become the main source of growth in the country's labour force. "We just wanted to be ahead of that curve," she says. "We know there's lots that bring experience and education and we wanted to be sure we tapped into it."

Employers' attitudes toward hiring immigrants have shifted dramatically in the past year or two, said Marva Wisdom, a Guelph, Ont.-based consultant on diversity (who prefers the term "inclusivity.") "It will ramp up quickly within the next couple of years," she said. "So much research now shows that we are no longer isolated — that the global village is a much closer place than we think."

That said, "in terms of organizations that specifically go out and seek new immigrants, it's still not where it should be."

Canada brings in about 250,000 immigrants a year and now has the second-highest proportion of immigrants among Western nations.

Many newcomers, however, struggle to become integrated into the work force. Scores of highly trained immigrants wind up working at jobs far below their capabilities. Canada's last census showed the earnings gap between immigrants and Canadian-born residents has widened in the past few decades.

Nadeem Anwar bucked that trend. The 42-year-old from Karachi, Pakistan, arrived in Toronto last March with his wife and three children.
For months, he searched for jobs that would match his decade-long experience in financial services. No nibbles. Instead of settling for more casual work, he spent time volunteering and seeking out other professionals.

Last fall, he enrolled in a financial services connection program that helped him prepare for the Canadian Securities Course, revamp his résumé and do mock job interviews ("I learned that in interviews here, you must stay focused and not stray from the core thing.").

His revised résumé — and bolstered confidence — helped land him a full-time, permanent job in December at the Bank of Nova Scotia, where he's currently in training to become an account manager for small businesses.

"I wanted to be somewhere where there's a long-term opportunity to grow," he says. "I feel lucky to be here."

For Scotiabank, which operates in more than 50 countries, hiring people like Mr. Anwar remains a top priority — even as the economy slows.
Involvement in programs that support hiring immigrants "is the one place where we're really not looking at cuts," said Deanna Matzanke, director of global employment strategies. "It's a great investment and we don't want to abandon it."

What's spurring Scotia? The wish to reflect growing immigrant populations among its staff and a constant need for more multilingual workers. As well, that global experience can help smooth transitions when the bank makes a merger or acquisition, Ms. Matzanke says.

Many cities across Canada are now offering newcomers programs that promote mentoring, internships, or a chance to network. In Halifax, for example, next month the city will launch a new approach to helping immigrants get connected. It has signed up 40 employers and professionals, who will have coffee with a newcomer to offer advice and answer questions. Each expert will then give the person three names they can call for further guidance.

"It's a pay-it-forward idea," said Fred Morley, executive vice-president and chief economist of the Greater Halifax Partnership economic development organization. "It gives people a one-on-one, personal experience and provides an opportunity to find a connection."

Back in Montreal, Mr. Cohen hopes his free-of-charge (and ad-free) website is another way to make those connections. "I just hope this will facilitate the path for new Canadians," he says.

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