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Ratna Omidvar, head of the Maytree Foundation. (J.P. Moczulski)
Ratna Omidvar, head of the Maytree Foundation. (J.P. Moczulski)

SMART CITIES

On immigration, Canada could learn from world capitals Add to ...

Ratna Omidvar thinks Canadian cities could be doing more to welcome skilled and entrepreneurial immigrants. As president of Maytree, a Toronto-based foundation that seeks to reduce poverty and inequality, Ms. Omidvar knows how important these newcomers are to urban economies.

Through its DiverseCity project, Maytree is working to propel more members of the Greater Toronto Area’s visible minority population into leadership roles.

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But the GTA has some catching up to do, says Ms. Omidvar, who is also co-chair of DiverseCity Community Resource Society. In a 2009 report, Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute in Management & Technology found that visible monitories accounted for just 14 per cent of the region’s leadership positions, even though they made up 49.5 per cent of its population.

Ms. Omidvar’s organization is also looking at ways to make Toronto friendlier to immigrant entrepreneurs by offering programs tailored to them. Barcelona and Vienna both have a full suite of services to help immigrants launch their own businesses, she notes.

Although Canada has a robust immigrant settlement and integration framework, it can learn from these cities, Ms. Omidvar argues. “It’s actually quite mind-boggling how much more creative they are than we are,” she says. “We have not grabbed the opportunity that would-be immigrant entrepreneurs present to us.”

In a global economy, cities that attract and successfully integrate immigrants gain an edge over their rivals. But an ethnically diverse leadership and talent pool is just one part of the equation. Cities must also win their share of the educated and highly mobile young workers who figure prominently in companies’ location choices.

Skilled immigrants make Canada more globally competitive, says Alison Konrad, professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business.

“The deep knowledge of other cultures they can bring to our businesses has a lot of potential,” Dr. Konrad explains. “Where it starts having synergies and is a catalyst for business is when people help us to understand new groups of customers that are relatively not well served.”

International immigration has played a crucial and often overlooked role in the United States’ economic success, says Joe Cortright, president and chief economist of Impresa, a Portland, Ore.-based consulting firm that specializes in metropolitan economies and knowledge-based industries.

No doubt. Between 1995 and 2005, according to a Duke University study, 25.3 per cent of U.S. engineering and technology startups had at least one foreign-born founder.

Meanwhile, U.S. metropolitan areas with the highest levels of educational attainment – a key driver of prosperity – are home to the most immigrants, Mr. Cortright says. “Places like New York, San Francisco and Miami all have very large immigrant populations, and a very high fraction of their well-educated population [was]born abroad.”

Immigrants tend to move to places where members of their community already live, Mr. Cortright adds. Also, some cities are more globally connected than others. For example, Miami and San Francisco have close ties to Latin America and Asia, respectively. “There are a whole set of cultural and institutional factors in those cities that I think make them much more capable of attracting and assimilating immigrants,” Mr. Cortright says.

The right programs can make a big difference, too. Ivey’s Dr. Konrad works with employers through the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC), which was co-founded by Maytree and includes members from business, labour and government. On the employer side, TRIEC trains companies to do culturally competent selection and hiring.

One stumbling block for Canadian employers is that they may not recognize topnotch educational credentials from countries such as China and India, Dr. Konrad explains. “Our selection systems, on the objective as well as the more subjective side, are really skewed for people in our own culture,” she says. “We miss a lot of talent that way.”

At the industry-led Edmonton Region Immigrant Employment Council, a mentorship program helps skilled immigrants move toward jobs that match their educational and professional backgrounds. “They sometimes need a little bit of an insider’s guide to what it’s like to work in the Canadian workplace,” says executive director Doug Piquette.

Many of them weren’t born overseas, but talented young workers also play a vital role in cities’ economic development. Impresa’s Mr. Cortright spends much of his time tracking the movements of well-educated young people throughout the U.S. As he points out, they’re the most mobile demographic in American society.

Since 2000, Impresa reports, the number of college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds living in or near the cores of the 51 largest U.S. metropolitan areas has grown by 26 per cent. That’s double the increase outside of close-in metropolitan neighbourhoods.

Because this age group is smaller than it was in the 1990s and the oldest baby boomers have started to retire, talent is scarcer, Mr. Cortright says. “Increasingly, employers are making location decisions based on what’s a place where there are lots of talented people already and to which it’s relatively easy to attract more if [they]need them.”

To become one of those places, a city must offer amenities such as interesting neighbourhoods and good public transit, Mr. Cortright advises. It also needs a distinct identity – for Portland, it’s beer, bikes and Birkenstocks. “Figure out what your niche is, what groups you appeal to, and focus on that,” Mr. Cortright says. “No city can be the best place for everybody.”

City moves

Maytree, the Toronto-based foundation, showcases global cities’ efforts to integrate immigrants on its Cities of Migration website. Here are five examples from the world of work:

  • Hamburg, Germany: In 2006, Hamburg kicked off a marketing campaign to recruit more civil servants from immigrant backgrounds. It has generated results: Last year this group accounted for 15 per cent of trainees for mid-level positions, compared with 5 per cent when the campaign began.
  • Barcelona, Spain: In a city where immigrants made up almost 20 per cent of the population in 2009, economic development agency Barcelona Activa has adapted its well-established entrepreneurship programs to serve them.
  • Copenhagen, Denmark: The Danish Centre for Information on Gender, Equality and Ethnicity runs a mentoring program that matches immigrant and refugee women with counterparts from the work force.
  • New York City: Besides helping immigrant professionals adapt to and succeed in the job market, the non-profit organization Upwardly Global operates an employer network.
  • Auckland, New Zealand: In 2008, local civic and business leaders launched Opportunities for Migrant Employment in Greater Auckland. They modelled it on the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council.

For more case studies, visit Cities of Immigration.

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