Financial Times
March 3, 2008

Bernard Simon

Stefan Atton would have been happy just to get a job as a truck driver when he sat down for an interview at Toronto’s Steam Whistle Brewery in 2002. By the time the interview was over and his references checked, he had an offer to become the craft brewer’s marketing director.

Legions of skilled immigrants, especially from the developing world, can relate to Mr Atton’s story.

Before leaving his native Sri Lanka, he was the export development manager for Lion Brewery Ceylon, the country’s leading brewer. He had previously managed its flagship brand. Yet for five months after arriving in Canada at­tempts to find a similar job came to naught. “The main hurdle was that they said I didn’t have local experience,” Mr Atton says. He was working as a telemarketer when he ap­plied for the truck driving job.

The brewer is one of a growing number of Canadian companies that have bridged the misunderstanding, ignorance and sometimes prejudice that often separates immigrants searching for a job commensurate with their qualifications from employers in need of those very skills.

The barriers can be high on both sides. Immigrants struggle with differences in language and culture, and a dearth of contacts outside their own communities. Desperate for any job, they play down qualifications and experience in their applications.

For their part, employers are wary of taking a risk on applicants with unfamiliar credentials. As in Mr Atton’s case, many reject anyone without local experience.

“There’s a rich literature on women in the workplace, there’s a growing literature on visible min­orities in the workplace, but there is no literature on immigrants in the workplace,” says Eliza­beth McIsaac, executive director of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council, a non-profit group set up in 2003 to find ways of matching supply and demand.

Canada’s biggest city is an ideal test tube in which to observe the absorption of immigrants into the workforce. About 115,000 arrive in Toronto and its suburbs each year. According to the latest Statistics Canada census, 45.7 per cent of the city’s population was born outside Canada, making it the world’s most culturally diverse city. There are big Chinese, Indian, Somali, Ukrainian, Italian, Filipino, Chilean and Jamaican communities, to name but a few.

“All the labour force growth is coming from immigration,” says David Pecaut, the US-born founder of Boston Consulting’s Canadian practice and chairman of the Toronto City Summit Alliance, a coalition of civic leaders. He says employers could do more to make the most of the immigrant expertise that is available by reviewing hiring policies, informing immigrant settlement agencies about careers fairs, and educating their organisations about the economic value of diversity that derives from language skills and contacts in new markets.

Steam Whistle has become a kind of microcosm of the city. About a third of its 100 employees are immigrants. The chief financial of­ficer, Adrian Joseph, is another Lion Brewery alumnus. The company also employs a Czech brewmaster, Cuban head of quality control, Russian head of maintenance, Portuguese packaging supervisor and Scottish electrical engineer.

The eight-year-old brewer’s appetite for recruiting immigrants began when it struggled to compete for staff. “If you look at the best local talent in the field, it is usually taken by the biggest companies,” says Cam Heaps, Steam Whistle’s 33-year-old co-founder.

Ms McIsaac draws another distinction between big and small employers. The former – banks, insurance companies and government departments among others – usually understand adapting human resource policies and practices, she says. TRIEC’s financial backers include Toronto-Dominion Bank and Manulife Financial, two of Canada’s biggest financial institutions, a private foundation and an Ontario government agency. Triec’s chairman is Dominic D’Alessandro, Manulife’s Italian-born chief executive.

But smaller companies, says Ms McIsaac, “don’t have the capacity to engage in public policy discussions. They need solutions that are going to take off quickly, easily and without red tape.”

TRIEC has set up an internship programme, Career Bridge, dealing in four to 12-month stints. It offers skilled immigrants a path into the jobs market while enabling employers to assess them at low cost with no long-term commitment.

Ms McIsaac says 85 per cent of the 600 interns placed so far have found full-time work in or close to their specialisms.

TRIEC also organises a four-month mentoring scheme for professional immigrants. Volunteer men­tors are expected to spend 60-90 minutes a week helping newcomers on work culture, contacts, writing applications and learning about professional associations. About 2,600 matches have been made so far. Microsoft, Pepsi-Cola, KPMG and Toronto City Council are among 50 employers that have encouraged staff to participate.

Mr Pecaut says advice from a young colleague at Boston Consulting helped a 40-year-old Indian marketing specialist land a job at a rival consultancy at more than double the mentor’s salary. Mentors also play a valuable role by encouraging colleagues to re­think attitudes towards immigrants.

But success in matching immigrants to jobs requires compromise on both sides. Some professional bodies, such as those regulating doctors, lawyers and architects, have been reluctant to open their doors to foreigners partly, outsiders suspect, to keep a lid on supply and prevent fee-cutting. The Ontario government has told them to come up with plans to streamline membership applications.

At Steam Whistle, the brewery has found that there are cultural differences, such as how staff interact with each other, to overcome but Mr Heaps has no regrets about hiring people from diverse backgrounds with little or no Canadian experience. “There’s a fire burning inside them to prove themselves,” he says. Steam Whistle’s Czech brewmaster asked for a bedroom at the brewery.

The company has reached the stage, Mr Heaps says, where “we value international experience as much as local experience. You have got to get away from the [idea] that Canadian experience is the most important thing. That’s bullshit. It’s a global economy.”

Brewery taps staff’s social skills to help them work together

The reluctance of some Toronto employers to hire immigrants who lack standard qualifications was good news for Steam Whistle Brewery, a young company employing around 100 people. It put aside such qualms to take on some talented and experienced people.

Nevertheless, efforts were required on all sides to help everyone work together effectively. For instance, Adrian Joseph, the Sri Lanka-born chief financial officer, has forced himself to speak more slowly after colleagues had difficulty understanding him.

The blunt manner of many east Europeans has also ruffled a few feathers. “You can get some young Canadian kids who don’t appreciate that,” Mr Heaps says.

Steam Whistle uses a number of social activities to improve communication among staff. It puts on a weekly barbecue during the summer outside the bottling line. Staff take ski trips together, and several dozen attend a retreat in the summer at a lakeside cottage north of Toronto.

The beer-tasting bar on the ground floor of Steam Whistle’s offices in a former locomotive shed “is a good hang-out place for our employees”, Mr Joseph adds.


Steam Whistle’s success of integrating skilled immigrants into the workforce was featured in 2007 Immigrant Success (IS) Award in the category “Small Employer Award.”


Reference: Financial Times