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best employers for new canadians

Hari Pemasani joined Loblaw as a pharmacy assistant in 2007. With the firm’s help, he upgraded his qualifications and is now pharmacy manager at Fortinos, a division of Loblaw, in Hamilton.Glenn Lowson

When Hari Pemasani came to Canada from the south of India in 2007, he was prepared to do whatever it took to make a living for his family, even if that meant making supermarket deliveries. But he was lucky. Within two months, he found a job as a pharmacy assistant in Hamilton for Loblaw Cos. Ltd., a food retailer as well as a provider of drugstore, general merchandise and financial services.

"Loblaw immediately told me about their pharmacy program because they knew I was an international pharmacist," says Mr. Pemasani, 42, who jumped at the chance to become a licensed pharmacist in Canada. "Loblaw paid all my fees. I did the program at the University of Toronto and my student placement and internship with the company. Once I qualified, I was able to work as a pharmacist for Loblaw, and within two months I became the pharmacy manager at the store where I started."

In partnership with the U of T and the University of British Columbia, Loblaw provides internships to international pharmacy graduate students while they complete their courses, and once they're fully licensed, offers them permanent positions. In recognition for this and other initiatives, Loblaw is one of the companies honoured as Canada's Best Employers for New Canadians in 2012.

Other winning companies that offer jobs to newcomers after they complete internships include the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) in Calgary, an independent agency of the Government of Alberta; CH2M HILL Canada Ltd., an engineering, construction and operations firm in Toronto; and Toronto-Dominion Bank, also in Toronto. These employers and others on the list present a myriad of paid and unpaid training, apprenticeship and placement opportunities, generally through partnerships with educational institutions and community organizations.

"There's absolutely a real business case for doing this," says Dean Miller, vice-president of pharmacy operations for Loblaw. "Since there's been a shortage of pharmacists in Canada for some time, when the program started, we were all doing handsprings as retailers that there was finally another avenue to get pharmacists into our pharmacies."

Mr. Miller describes one of the program's biggest challenges as ensuring that the foreign pharmacists are comfortable in their environment. While he says it's very easy to have people work in Toronto and environs where culturally they may have an environment that works for them, as soon as one ventures into the North, or Eastern or Western Canada, the cultural shock between their home country and Canada is much more significant.

"We do everything we can to help them, from moving expenses to giving them a mentor in the community to help them integrate – someone they can call and ask about getting insurance or where to buy groceries, simple things that all of us take for granted, but for them it's a brand new thing."

Despite researching Canada's cold climate, the first winter surprised Mr. Pemasani and his family when they got up one morning and found two feet of snow in front of their apartment.

"We were well prepared with warm jackets and winter shoes, but it was still a bit of a shocker," says Mr. Pemasani, who believes in having a positive attitude. "We're from Chennai, which has a very tropical hot climate."

On the job, English can also be a challenge for newcomers, especially for those working at a highly technical level, such as engineers or geologists, or those required to write technical reports. Susan Cassidy, human resources manager for ERCB, says they see people who are at different levels in English capability, but that shouldn't be a reason not to hire those who don't speak English as a first language.

"They might require coaching or courses in English focused on business writing," Ms. Cassidy says. "Post-secondary institutions are coming out with much better programming in this area – beyond basic ESL classes and more into business writing and technical language. That's definitely needed for people to be successful so language isn't a barrier to employment."

David Larter, vice-president of human resources at CH2M HILL, says the company's work placement program in partnership with MicroSkills Toronto has been a win-win opportunity. While the company is always on the lookout for engineering and technical talent, they've had quite a number of candidates with other skills such as IT that are integral to their business and are committed to the program.

"People are very serious about wanting to do a good job and becoming successful in Canadian employment," Mr. Larter says. "They're willing to work hard and help grow the company, which is what we require in all of our candidates. It's a great opportunity to turn those placements into hires because you get to see the person and how they react to your environment and the pace."

Shanel Thomas is one of those people. At 18, she and her husband fled from corruption in Grenada, arriving in Canada in 2002. Several years later, after she and her husband separated, she found herself without family here, on welfare and with a child to support.

"The MicroSkills program gave me the opportunity to come back and be a person at a very dark time in my life," says Ms. Thomas, who's employed as a receptionist at CH2M Hill's Toronto office. "It's organizations like CH2M Hill that become involved in community development and these programs that help people like me. It gave me a chance to build my confidence back. Words cannot express how grateful I am for the opportunity."