Foreign workers tell CATA they feel systemically marginalized

The Information and Communications Technology Council recently released a report done by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) that documents the problems that internationally educated professionals face in integrating into the Canadian ICT workforce, and ICT employers’ reluctance to hire them, in spite of the skills shortage.

Funded by the Human Resources and Social Development’s Foreign Credential Recognition Program, the consultation report, titled “On the Road to Building an ICT Framework for Internationally Educated Professionals (IEP),” was based on two national surveys and six focus groups separately involving IEPs and employers that was conducted by CATA and two of its member companies, The Access Group and Adecco.

The main two issues brought up in the report, said Kevin Wennekes, vice-president of research with CATA, are IEPs’ difficulty in integrating into the Canadian ICT workforce, and how a successful strategic integration of these IEPs into the workforce could help alleviate the pressing skills shortage in the ICT industry — if only the employers would come around.

The report details the barriers that the IEPs face, the foremost of which, said Wennekes, are language and culture issues. “IEPs said that they did speak the language well, but perceived that their employer found their accent an impediment to effective communication,” said Wennekes.

He found that one-third to one-half of the IEPs surveyed felt systematically marginalized within the workplace and that the level of work and the amount of monetary compensation given to them was less than that of their Canadian peers. This feeling of isolation also results in an inability to network with the right people. IEPs tend to stick to their own cultural circles for networking, restricting their career-oriented connection opportunities and often receiving misinformation, according to Wennekes.

Toronto-based immigration lawyer Max Chaudhary said he is skeptical of the claim that networking is a key barrier, offering anecdotal evidence that he has found that qualified South Asian programmers who were born and raised in Canada still have difficulty in obtaining employment.

But the IEPs err in other places, too. “There’s not much research on Canada. They just hear that Canada is a friendly place with lots of work and cultural diversity. They don’t visit Canadian government Web sites, or visit Canadian consulates or embassies to speak to someone who knows about it first-hand,” Wennekes said.

The report thus calls for several government initiatives that would help IEPs to more easily acclimatize themselves, including an ICT-specific newcomer service agency and, according to the report, a “reliable, centralized information source on Canada, (including information on) Canada’s ICT labour market (and the immigration process), (and a) list of Canadian employers and newcomer service agencies, (plus) information on day-to-day living, such as how to apply for a credit card, secure a loan, deal with the weather change, etc.”

Word of the ICT skills shortage adds extra incentive for the skilled IT professional to immigrate. Many of them believe, according to Wennekes, that once they have the skills, the hard part is over. Chaudhary thinks that some IEPs may still have the pre-9/11 American mindset of “(Employers) don’t care what (their workers) look like as long as they can do the job. . . (In pre-9/11 America,) as long as they had the skills, they could start somewhere,” said Chaudhary. But, he said, this country has always been more of a closed community.

“Networking is a big priority in Canada,” said Chaudhary. The report found that only a third of those surveyed “identified themselves as working in their field of study, although many had assumed or were informed that their ICT skills were in great demand.”

Adding to these challenges of the job hunt, said Wennekes, is the employers’ reticence to hire IEPs over born-and-raised Canadians, even in the midst of a critical skills shortage. Said Wennekes: “The most surprising thing to come out of this report was that employers doubted that there is a skills shortage,” a fact he said could possibly come from the job boom out west in Alberta and British Columbia. “Instead of making a concentrated effort to hire IEPs, they instead prefer to build or develop their Canadian contacts.”

Wennekes said that during the focus groups, he had heard many anecdotes of IEPs submitting two very similar resumes, where one had their real name, and the other a more “Canadian-sounding” name — most of the time, the Canadianized resume got a call-back, while the resume submitted under their own name was ignored.

Chaudhary is confident that anti-IEP employers will eventually have to come around. “The skills shortage is well-documented. . .They won’t be able to keep their heads in the sand for long. What employer can’t have self-interest in mind? ,” he said. According to the report, this is necessary: “Canada must recruit and integrate highly qualified/skilled ICT workers into the Canadian labour force to be positioned to compete globally,” it says.

But, for now, even if an IEP can get their foot in the door, the working environment can be unpleasant. “There is a huge discrepancy between how the employers think they are treating their IEP employees and how the IEP employees feel they are being treated,” said Wennekes. “(The employers) can’t see what’s happening. They need to take a harder, honest look at the treatment of their IEP employees.” According to the report, “Employers believe that training and special accommodation programs are in place and routinely provided to IEPs– overwhelmingly, IEPs claim otherwise.”

The key to reducing the gap between what employers perceive to be happening and what is happening, according to Wennekes, is more engagement with the employees. Employers need to do regular workplace assessments and employee surveys to gauge workplace satisfaction, and put in place more mentoring and training programs.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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