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Small business fails to tap into immigrant talent Add to ...

Abdullahi Hussein is either a star hire worth a six-figure salary, or a statistic stuck in systemic unemployment. The answer depends on where he’s looking for work.

Born in Somalia, he received his undergraduate degree there before moving on to a masters degree in food inspection at the University of Reading in Britain. Mr. Hussein came to Canada in the early nineties, attracted by our multiculturalism.

Things went well at first. Mr. Hussein got a job with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, helping businesses bring their food inspection processes up to standard. The pay wasn’t as lucrative as his work in Yemen and the United States, but he liked the quality of life in Canada and decided to stay. Then in 2005, the project’s funding was cut. Mr. Hussein, along with a group of other inspectors, was out of a job. Though he was offered numerous international opportunities in the interim, he was unable to find another job in Canada.

Job seekers such as Mr. Hussein tend to monitor international job boards and the vacancy postings of big companies, according to Toronto-based Maytree Foundation, but they are rarely plugged into the kinds of social networks many Canadian small business owners draw from to do their hiring.

Mr. Hussein pointed out that being outside those informal circles is one of the key reasons he’s had a hard time finding work in Canada.





Ted Mallett, head of research for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), said small businesses often lack the resources to advertise and hire outside their immediate networks. “These are employers who are already working long hours. They won’t look only at the new Canadians in the market, they will be looking at the whole swath, and they will go for whatever is easiest and most cost effective.”

Checking references in Bangalore, India, can be a whole lot more complicated than checking them in Barrie, Ontario. And comparing qualifications? With no reliable scale to assess an immigrant’s skills, small-business owners tend to default to what they know, Mr. Mallett said.

Once an immigrant is hired, Mr. Mallett added, other problems can emerge, most frequently associated with language ability. Few small businesses have the resources to provide cultural-specific training, mentorship or language skills to help an immigrant make a smooth transition. “We’ve done what we can,” Mr. Mallet said. “[CFIB]got the federal government to relax the rules around sponsoring immigrants, and we asked them to fast-track immigrants in key occupations. There’s not much more we can do.”





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According to the CFIB, 78 per cent of small business owners reported they had not hired an immigrant in the four-year period from 2003 through 2006. Yet small businesses across the country continue to report potentially crippling job vacancies for long periods.

Other observers, including Don Drummond, chief economist of Toronto-Dominion Bank, and Maytree Foundation president Ratna Omidvar, say Mr. Hussein’s story could be the tip of an iceberg with the potential to sink Canada’s future prosperity.





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A study conducted by Statistics Canada this year found that six in 10 skilled immigrants reported being unable to find a job in their field of expertise. But CFIB research shows that more than 50 per cent of small business owners reported long-term job vacancies. In many cases, owners said chronic understaffing had forced them to pass up new business. That’s a major concern for future economic growth, considering CFIB’s assertion that companies with fewer than 100 employees make up almost 90 per cent of Canadian businesses.

Small businesses also represent “up to 80 per cent of current hiring,” says Ms. Omidvar of Maytree, an organization that promotes workplace diversity. “At the same time, they don’t seem to be looking at the talent pool that is available to them.”

CFIB policy director Dan Kelly said the problem also has roots in Canada’s immigrant selection process. “The points system is divorced from the kinds of jobs we need,” he explained. “The jobs that are most in short supply are the trades, semi-skilled and entry level. So there is a skills mismatch at the intake level.”

Some buy this argument, but not Ms. Omidvar. “I would suggest it is better for the small or medium-sized business to get someone in who is more qualified, rather than waiting four months or more for the right hire,” she said. “It is also better for skilled immigrants to get their foot in their general field of work. If an engineer is working as a technologist, I actually think that is a good thing. It’s not the best thing, but it’s better than driving a taxi.”





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While economists and immigration advocates search for solutions, Mr. Hussein ended his search for work after he was offered a lucrative overseas position earlier this month with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Bangladesh. He has since left the country.

Would he have considered trying for a job with a small business in Canada? “Absolutely,” he said before he accepted the job. “The question is: Would they hire me?”

Statistically speaking, the answer right now is probably not.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mr. Mallett and Mr. Kelly from the CFIB joined us for a discussion on bridging this employment gap.

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