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EMPLOYMENT

Project connects immigrants with small businesses Add to ...

After a two-year job hunt, Richie Sanasy finally found a business looking to hire newcomers to Canada like him.

Despite a business management degree and accounting experience, Mr. Sanasy had been unable to find relevant work since arriving in Kitchener, Ont., from the tiny island of Mauritius.

Then, last year, he met Prakash Venkataraman, president and chief executive officer of Brantford, Ont.-based Redragon Oil and Gas Systems International Inc. The manufacturer of custom utility and recycling engineering was looking specifically for bilingual newcomers with overseas connections to help the business expand internationally.

It’s the kind of fit that far too many small and medium-sized businesses and new immigrants overlook, according to an upcoming report from the Maytree Foundation, a charitable agency.

Many small business owners are in desperate need of skilled workers, but are either unaware of or don’t consider the qualified pool of new immigrants that have already arrived in Canada, says Maytree president Ratna Omidvar.

At the same time, many newcomers want to work at large companies they’ve heard of back home but either do not know of or don’t think about approaching smaller companies that could use their skills, she adds.

Maytree has set up a new project under its Assisting Local Leaders with Immigrant Employment Strategies (ALLIES) that is trying to come up with strategies to connect the two, contending it will bring benefits to both. ALLIES, in partnership with The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, began the new initiative last October; it will wrap up its consultations with small businesses this fall and use its findings to help formulate pilot projects to be later rolled out.

Canada brings in about 250,000 immigrants each year, according to Maytree. While the largest group is skilled immigrants, only one in four immigrants is able to find employment relevant to their education and experience, Maytree has found.

About 30 per cent of immigrants who have come to major cities including Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax in the last decade hold a bachelor’s degree, according to Maytree.

Ms. Omidvar points out that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) hire 64 per cent of private-sector workers in Canada, so immigrants are overlooking many job possibilities if they don’t consider them as potential employers.

But “part of our challenge is that new immigrants don’t tend to go to SMEs,” she says.

At the same time, smaller companies may lack the human resource expertise and staffing to reach out to and recruit the ready pool of immigrants that are right at their doorstep, she says.

Ms. Omidvar says it may feel daunting for a smaller business, whose owner may be in charge of hiring, to interpret overseas qualifications and check up on foreign references. Costs associated with training or making a wrong hire may make a newcomer applicant seem riskier than someone with extensive Canadian experience and education, she says.

“We understand that mitigating risk is a huge factor for any employer. No employer wants to take a risk but bigger employers may be more likely,” she says.

Existing programs that bring small businesses together with immigrants are spotty throughout the country. One, the Waterloo Region Immigrant Employment Network (WRIEN), funded by the Ontario government, helps employers connect with immigrants by running networking and internship programs.

It was through that network that Redragon’s Mr. Venkataraman met Mr. Sanasy at an event last year. Mr. Venkataraman, who is originally from India, says he understands the employment hurdles newcomers face since he’s an immigrant himself.

Before meeting Mr. Venkataraman, Mr. Sanasy spent two years searching for jobs in his field while working in manual labour jobs and attending college.

“I was ready to hit the ground running but needed this one opportunity to start my life here,” says Mr. Sanasy,. “It was quite hard.”

At the event, the two chatted about business. Mr. Sanasy was offered an interview and later hired for a shipping and receiving job at the company. Within six months, he was promoted to materials manager.

Mr. Venkataraman says initiatives including WRIEN have helped him recruit recent immigrants from India, Australia, the Philippines, Cuba, the Middle East and Sri Lanka. Those international connections and the fact that his 30 employees speak a total of 25 languages have helped Mr. Venkataraman expand his business to hundreds of clients worldwide since opening in 2005, he says.

“It’s the chicken-and-the-egg case,” Mr. Venkataraman says.”You need to give them the opportunity before you can expect Canadian experience.”

Other small-business employers have also seen opportunity in recruiting immigrants that have already arrived in Canada.

Peter Kelk, president of George Kelk Corp., says he relies heavily on LinkedIn to recruit talented newcomers. Being open to international applicants has meant the majority of his hires have been newcomers, he says.

“We’re a high-technology company and the immigrant population tends to be highly educated,” says Mr. Kelk, whose Toronto-based company produces sensors for steel rolling mills.

He says checking international references has become easier with the increasing popularity of the Internet worldwide.

“It’s simply that we’ve been open-minded,” Mr. Kelk says. “It’s not charity on our part; it’s good business.”

Despite academic qualifications, getting an interview with companies other than the likes of Redragon or Kelk may be stymied by lack of Canadian experience, says Anil Verma, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources and the Rotman School of Management.

Employers are looking for professionals like engineers and electricians who already know country-specific standards and regulations, he says.

“These newcomers need some kind of investment in training and opportunity to work, let’s say, as an intern or apprentice,” Prof. Verma says. “Small businesses do not have a surplus of the manpower or the time or cost to give these opportunities to people, so this is what causes the mismatch.”

To help bridge those kinds of gaps, Maytree’s preliminary suggestions include more internship programs throughout the country that could be subject to government wage subsidies.

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