Workplace Reality

Financial Post
February 25, 2009

Mary Teresa Bitti

Diversity is about numbers. One in five Canadians is born on foreign soil. According to the 2006 Census, the level of immigration in recent years has been unprecedented. A walk through the streets of Toronto or Vancouver puts a face to those numbers. According to Statistics Canada, six in 10 visible minorities live in those two cities. That’s 40% of their populations. In Montreal, one in six people is a visible minority (defined by the census-takers as persons other than Aboriginals who are non-Caucasian), representing 16.5% of the population.

Between 2001 and 2006, Canada’s foreign-born population growth rate was four times higher than that of the Canadian-born population during the same period. The numbers continue to trend upward.

What does that mean for the workforce? A lot.

StatsCan reports that immigrants who arrived in the 1990s accounted for 70% of the net labour force growth between 1991 and 2001. By 2011 — thanks to a shrinking population– Canada will rely 100% on immigration for net labour market growth. By 2031, we will rely on immigration 100% for population growth. But that’s another story.

Canadian businesses are not as good at tapping into this diverse labour pool as they should be and it’s costing them, says Ratna Omidvar, president of the Maytree Foundation, a private non-profit in Toronto dedicated to fighting poverty and working with business to help immigrant workers put their education and experience to work. A Conference Board of Canada study quantifies the cost to the Canadian economy of not using the skills of immigrants at anywhere between $2.4-billion and $3.4-billion a year. “Only four of 10 skilled immigrants are attaching themselves to the workforce at a requisite level that speaks to their past work experience,” Ms. Omidvar says.

With the economy slowing and labour markets loosening up, people may argue, why should we care? “The point is there are short-term priorities and there are long-term priorities and we have to meet them both,” Ms. Omidvar says. “Immigration is not the only solution to many of our national labour force issues, but it is one solution and we ignore it at our peril.”

And let’s not forget the looming workforce shift precipitated by the all-powerful Baby Boomers — nine-million-plus strong in Canada — who are preparing to retire. “Yes, the economy is soft, but there are demographic factors that are real,” says Anne Sado, president of George Brown College in Toronto.

“For example, the average age of a nurse in Ontario is 47. If you don’t start recognizing the capabilities and credentials of new immigrants coming to Canada, we are going to be hard-pressed to have the right people in place when we need them.”

It may fall to the business leaders in our hyper-diverse cities — Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal — to leverage the under-utilized immigrant workforce.

Canada’s most ethnically and racially diverse city is stepping up. DiverseCity: The Greater Toronto Leadership Project launched eight initiatives to help diversify leadership in business, the non-profit sector and on the civic stage across the greater Toronto area. The idea for DiverseCity was born during the 2007 Toronto City Summit when more than 600 Toronto leaders came together and called for a holistic effort to diversify leadership to create a more prosperous GTA.

DiverseCity is sponsored by the Maytree Foundation and the Toronto City Summit Alliance, the two co-founders of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC), which included employers in the design, delivery and implementation of initiatives to bring the skilled immigrant closer to the labour market.

Employers in the program provide internships as key partners in a mentoring initiative that has provided more than 3,000 matches in the city. They also are working with TRIEC to document their best practices in a way that is easily consumable across the GTA, creating a march of ideas. For example, Royal Bank no longer asks for place of education on its applications. What does that mean? An MBA is an MBA is an MBA. And that, says Ms. Omidvar, is huge. “That means more of the internationally educated hiring pool gets a chance to make their case. Once they get that interview, it’s rarely held against them. It’s getting in the door.

“But we are not satisfied with doing better in Toronto,” Ms. Omidvar says. “Together with the McConnell Family Foundation, we are taking the TRIEC initiative to other urban centres. Vancouver is starting its own response led by employers, as is Montreal.”

There is a strong business case for diversity and performance, particularly when it comes to senior management and the director level. International studies show diversity leads to innovative thinking, which leads to improved financial performance. Without diverse leadership, companies risk group-think.


Reference: Financial Post