Immigrants fill all 17 software R&D jobs at company, but few firms are recruiting with diversity in mind

Elvira Cordileone

If it weren’t for immigrant workers, one of the fastest-growing companies in Canada wouldn’t be the success story it is.

Grace Baba, human resources director at Scarborough i3DVR, says her bosses, Vietnamese immigrants Jack and Kim Chi Hoang, “really believe that if they (immigrant workers) weren’t here, the company wouldn’t be as successful as it is.”

The Hoangs started installing home security systems in 1990. Today, their company produces and distributes specialized digital video surveillance management systems across North America, Asia and, soon, in Europe.

Baba says they have a deliberate hiring policy that has worked out well for the company hire the most qualified applicants, no matter where in the world they come from, how long ago they stepped ashore and what institutions issued their professional credentials.

For some jobs, she says, even English proficiency isn’t necessary.

The formula appears to be working. The technical skills, experience and fresh thinking of the new Canadians on staff have helped catapult i3DVR’s sales from $500,000 in 1990, to $16.2 million in 2004. That put the company in 11th place on an annual list of the 100 fastest-growing Canadian companies, compiled by Profit magazine.

The company’s Canadian workforce numbers 85. Immigrants occupy all 17 software engineering jobs in research and development, and others work in production, sales and marketing. It also employs eight people in the U.S., 37 in Vietnam and two in Korea.

Baba relies on employee referrals as a primary recruiting tool. Outreach also includes job postings with Human Resources Development Canada and online agencies, such as Workopolis.

Once on board, i3DVR offers them weekly on-site English classes. Social events such as monthly staff luncheons help them practice their English, says marketing co-ordinator Sherri Sanjurjo. It also deepens understanding of cultures.

Companies like i3DVR are the wave of the future, says the Toronto Board of Trade. Its president, Glen Grunwald, says businesses have to start hiring immigrants to avoid a looming labour shortage – the result of Canada’s low birth rate and an aging population.

Gordon Nixon, president and CEO of RBC Financial, agrees that Canada needs the talents, training and experience skilled immigrants have to offer. Speaking at the International Metropolis Conference in Toronto last fall, Nixon said immigrants can help us thrive in a world economy driven by how well business can leverage “human capital” to innovate, develop new markets and foster new companies.

But he said Canadian companies, large and small, have “dropped the ball.” Although immigrants over the past decade have arrived better educated, they’ve been less successful here than earlier waves of immigrants.

In fact, a survey of 155 medium and large Canadian companies conducted by Alison Konrad, a professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School, revealed that fewer than a third recruit with diverse groups in mind, and even fewer consciously seek new Canadians.

Nixon estimates this “waste of human potential” costs the Canadian economy $13 billion a year in lost personal income. If the skills of the immigrants were used to their full potential, that would translate into a one-time gain of 400,000 more workers in a year – and address some of our labour shortages.

Companies also need to understand that markets are becoming more global, and that immigrant workers can play a positive role in adapting.

Prem Benimadhu, the Conference Board of Canada’s vice-president of organizational performance, says that although 85 per cent of Canada’s exports now go to the U.S., our future markets will span the world.

He says businesses need employees who understand emerging economies such as India and China, where the bulk of young people – their future consumers – live.

They also have to change their thinking about local markets, Benimadhu says. For more than a decade, 80 per cent of the 250,000 immigrants who arrive here each year have been visible minorities. These growing ethnic buyer groups have varying needs and tastes, and can’t be tapped with a uniform product or sales pitch.

“Companies that hire them (visible minorities) know it has to do with survival. If you want them to do business with you, they will want to see you hiring people like them,” Benimadhu says.

Developing a diverse workforce takes time and only succeeds if it’s part of the business plan, says Tara Peever, spokeswoman for American Express Canada, a travel and financial services company.

Senior management, she says, must take a hands-on approach to make it happen. For example, Amex’s president sits on the firm’s diversity committee, along with representatives from every business unit and job level, which underscores its importance, brings visibility to the issue and engages employees.

Amex’s recruitment staff have specialized training in diversity hiring, she adds. They attend job fairs and contact community agencies, and the firm even gives cash rewards to employees for successful referrals.

Immigrants “bring a wealth of new ideas and are a link to the community,” Peever says. Once on staff, the company works hard to keep immigrants by helping them develop their skills through training, coaching and mentoring programs.

Employers who hire differently

To recognize employers that hire new immigrants and use their skills appropriately, the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council has launched the Immigrant Success Awards, in partnership with the Toronto Star, RBC Financial Group and Canadian HR Reporter. This year’s winners:

Small employer: i3DVR International Inc.

Mid-size employer: Family Service Association of Toronto

Large employer: Ernst & Young

Influencer: St. Michael’s Hospital

Individual (tie): Ken Pustai, senior vice-president of human resources at TD Bank Financial Group and Amy Go, executive director of Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care

Reference: Toronto Star