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Canadian employers continue to struggle to fill their, labour shortages, with 53 per cent of small and medium-sized organizations (which make up 99.7 per cent of Canadian businesses) citing difficulty in finding qualified employees as the reason they will not be making business investments. There is a disconnect between supply and demand.

Meanwhile, many immigrants end up in roles that are not aligned to the careers they had in their country of origin. They take the jobs that they can get and not necessarily the roles that they want. A recent survey of 400 immigrants from the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC) showed that just 54 per cent of recent immigrants find roles that match their area of expertise and level of seniority within three job positions in Canada. The survey revealed that if the appropriate role has not been found after the third position, the percentage of immigrants who land relevant roles stagnates. These remaining immigrants are unlikely to return to their industries and seniority levels, as their résumés begin to look increasingly different.

It is this pool of immigrants who have the skills and are ready to help meet the demands of the labour market that we should tap into while we wait for our borders to be fully open again, let’s also find ways to maximize the skills of those who are already here.

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Often, recruiters will look at the last two roles held by a candidate to determine if they are suitable for a position. However, many immigrants could easily step back into their industry and commensurate levels, perhaps with some skill upgrading and mentoring. While it is true that in certain sectors the technical knowledge might get stale fast, the existing technical foundations and the likelihood of being able to catch up makes them promising candidates. Since organizations usually have budgets for learning and development for existing employees, extending that practice to new hires who need to up-skill right away might be a good investment. The learning curve leading to full productivity may not be as steep as one might think.

Look at the talent within

In an ideal world, all immigrants would land in a role commensurate with their education and experience. But the reality is that immigrants do end up in roles for which they are overqualified, or in which they only use a subsection of their skill set. Because of the speed of business, leaders may forget about the wide range of skills these team members have beyond those required for their current roles – and most organizations do not have a centralized database to capture this information.

A robust internal hiring policy and practice can result in movement between positions in a way that works both for the employee and the employer. The advantage of hiring internally is that much of the onboarding has already been done, including the understanding of the work culture. When specific skill sets are scarce, or team members are high-performers, leaders may be reluctant to encourage internal applications. Creating incentives for leaders to promote the benefits of internal movement will make the organization stronger.

Career advancement may also not be so obvious for immigrant employees who may not immediately understand how to network within the organization and how to promote their skills. Some organizations have set up sponsorship mechanisms for under-represented groups to capitalize on the employee strengths that exist within the organization.

The key to unlocking talent

Finally, there is a need to ensure that both the internal and external hiring process is inclusive. We all have unconscious biases and blind spots, that can affect practices. In hiring, these can range from the language contained within the job posting (i.e. “Canadian experience required”), to the initial résumé screening (i.e. common Western names are more likely to be picked), to the interview questions and assessments of qualifications (i.e. focusing on the deficit of qualifications by the immigrant vs. strengths of candidates born in Canada). The key to unlocking immigrant talent is shining a light on those blind spots.

Adwoa K. Buahene is CEO of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC).


Adwoa K. Buahene is chief executive officer of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council. She is the Leadership Lab columnist for October, 2020.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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