Mentoring and internship programs can be a win-win for employers and job candidates alike, panel members point out

Special to the Globe and Mail
September 25, 2009

Diane Jermyn

When it comes to hiring, Canadian businesses often ignore the talent and skills that highly educated immigrants bring to the work force. Seventy-two per cent of prime working-age immigrants in Ontario have an international university degree, according to the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC). That should give them an edge in the market, considering that only 25 per cent of their Ontario counterparts are as educated, yet the qualifications and experience of this group often go unrecognized and untapped.

Incubator talked to business leaders who are involved in creating opportunities for skilled immigrants through mentoring and internship programs, about the concerns many small businesses may have in hiring newcomers and the business case for welcoming them into their professional ranks.

“The principle reason why small and medium sized businesses should hire skilled immigrants is they will bring huge human assets into their midst who are going to contribute immensely to the growth and success of these businesses,” says John Tory, businessman, former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario and former honorary chair of Career Bridge, a paid internship program for professionally qualified immigrants in Canada.

One problem, says Mr. Tory, is that many small to medium-sized businesses are cautious and don’t want to take a chance when hiring. “It’s a bigger bet for an eight-person company to hire one person as an intern than an 8,000-person company,” he says.

Another problem is that interested small or medium businesses often don’t know where to find help. Mr. Tory says that TRIEC, Career Bridge and similar organizations should be the point of entry into the system; they can help co-ordinate the paperwork and process.

“We have to let the businesses know we’re not going to put them through the wringer in terms of 12 weeks of paper filing and interviews,” says Mr. Tory. “We need to say, ‘We have the ability to produce some candidates for you quickly and efficiently and follow the candidates. And then, we’re going to make it as attractive as we can to take these people in on a trial internship.’ “

Often those trial internships lead to permanent positions within the company, to the benefit of both employer and employee.

“I can speak to our own success at KPMG, where 31 per cent of employees are self-identified visible minorities within our Toronto work force,” says Rob Brouwer, Canadian managing partner, markets, for KPMG, one of the top Canadian employers for immigrants. “For us, it has been a real differentiator, not only in terms of competition for labour, but it has made us a more able competitor in the marketplace because it has given us the opportunity to retain the best and the brightest talent.”

“One of the most successful programs has been the mentoring program,” says Ratna Omidvar, president of Maytree, a private foundation committed to reducing inequality and poverty in Canada. Maytree was a co-founder of TRIEC along with the Toronto City Summit Alliance.

“It’s a very simple idea. You connect someone who has skills, experience and education but who is unemployed or underemployed, and match them with someone in the same industry with exactly the same kinds of skills and experience. They may have studied in a different part of the world or had their experience elsewhere, but they speak the same common occupational language: HR person to HR person, engineer to engineer. We’ve done that more than 3,000 times over the last three years.”

Manulife was the first relationship Ms. Omidvar had with a corporate partner. Although they shared values and goals, neither had any idea at the start how successful the program would become.

“Manulife hired interns, launched a mentoring program with over 50 mentors and hired many interns, but more importantly, they took a public position,” says Ms. Omidvar. “Because Manulife came on board, others followed suit. It was magical.”

Ms. Omidvar sees the case for small businesses somewhat differently, with the key reasons for hiring newcomers being innovation and the development of new markets.

“There’s a mantra: ‘Innovate or stagnate,’ ” says Ms. Omidvar. “When you inject new life experiences, new ideas and a different perspective, you come up with new solutions.”

With close to 50 per cent of the population born elsewhere in the five larger cities in the GTA, Ms. Omidvar doesn’t think that small business can afford to overlook a new customer base and its evolving tastes.

“What does that mean in terms of consumer behaviour?” ask Ms. Omidvar. “I know that shampoos are being developed differently and food is being prepared differently. It’s a business case that will endure as long as immigrants continue to fuel the growth of this region.”

Young Park, sector vice-president at CGI, an international IT consulting company, leads a team of 650 specialists in Toronto. Their clients include those in financial services, health care, government, manufacturing, communications and retail. The company offers English and French language programs as well as a mentoring and network program. Visible minorities are about 38 per cent of their talent pool.

“Often employees have to work closely with customers, which means they have to have the soft skills it requires,” Ms. Park explains. “Most of the new immigrants don’t have that yet because of language and cultural barriers, so that has to be addressed in a gradual manner. They do have core competencies in the necessary skill sets, but what they need to work on and what we as an employer need to help them with, is bridging that skills gap.”

The TRIEC program has been beneficial to the Canadian business community, Ms. Park says, because it can tap into a more highly skilled and highly educated labour market at an equal or lower cost.

“Many [candidates] have skill sets that include global experience,” she says. “Now, with a global economy and delivery, having people who are internationally skilled with experience puts them a step above.”

Ultimately, all we spoke to agree that employers need to give skilled newcomers a chance.

“Look past the initial impressions to the underlying skill sets and their experiences and then make an informed judgment whether you think they can make a contribution to your company,” says KPMG’s Mr. Brouwer. “Cultural diversity has been part of our cultural fabric at KPMG. It’s no longer a program. It’s a fundamental part of our fabric.”

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Reference: Globe and Mail