Employers hear the message repeatedly: The workplace is changing. Oft-quoted projections from Statistics Canada show, by 2011, immigration will account for virtually all net labour market growth.
But there’s a problem — and it’s not the stereotypical engineer driving a taxi, unable to find work in his field. It’s that many gifted, internationally trained professionals (ITPs), having secured employment in their field, eventually become frustrated with barriers to career success.
Despite their technical talents, they may find themselves assigned a narrow range of work duties, excluded from direct customer contact, leadership opportunities and normal career advancement. That’s because their language skills are often lacking and employers don’t know how to resolve this dilemma.
Not all training is suitable
While many employers have recognized both the barriers and the need for communication skills development for ITPs, not all training options fit the bill. Employers must assess which content is most crucial: Core language skills, strategic business communication skills or cultural awareness.
Core language skills: The basics — pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary — are an obvious starting place. But workplace communication performance improvements can be painfully incremental. Grammatical and linguistic skills can be measured with the 12-level Canadian Language Benchmark system, which suggests 200 hours of instruction are required to advance one single level. What workplace could afford this commitment to training, and how many professionals would tolerate the pace?
Strategic communication skills: These skills are a potential target for development, particularly in workplaces involving teamwork, customer interface or leadership roles. In navigating complex interpersonal interactions, strategic skills such as persuasion, problem solving, rapport building, concise-thought presentation and active listening are crucial. A modest amount of training in these areas can bring noticeable gains in on-the-job communication.
Unfortunately, the training often lacks the linguistic substance required by ITPs — along with ample opportunity to practise them in work-related scenarios. Training managers should assess whether the training offers an appropriate combination of linguistic training and pragmatic interpersonal depth.
Intercultural awareness: This is another essential area of development for ITPs. At play in the workplace are largely unconscious, cultural assumptions that go beyond issues of visible attributes and lifestyle such as dress, holidays and cuisine. When deeper issues — expectations about hierarchical work relationships, team roles, risk tolerance and directness of communication — are brought to the surface and demystified, the effect can be significant on career mobility, collegial rapport and customer service.
When a new employee is frustrated by her manager’s “weak leadership,” while her manager has labeled the worker as “high-need,” this is likely a culturally based role issue. When a project team meeting polarizes into two camps — blunt expressions of opinion on one side and eye-avoiding reticence on the other — cultural factors may be at play, with parties on both sides puzzling over why their leadership efforts have not been acknowledged. This interpersonal quagmire can undermine productivity and employee engagement, and increase the likelihood of driving away highly skilled and motivated employees.
So what works?
A new hybrid of training is emerging to meet the needs of a dynamic, culturally diverse work environment populated by highly educated ITPs.
Training programs should include strategic business skills such as persuasion and active listening, enriched with a context-relevant matrix of English language skills. They also offer the key to unlocking workplace interpersonal interactions by enhancing awareness of culturally based assumptions and behaviours.
For employers whose goal is to attract, develop, retain and promote top talent of international origin, hybrid communication training can be a godsend. It enables ITPs to engage as full contributors in the workplace and to progress through the expected stages of career development. Uncapping the talent of these high-level professionals pays handsome dividends in an organization’s success and growth.
Teresa McGill is president of Gandy Associates, a training company based in Mississauga, Ont., specializing in communications education. For more information, visit www.gandy.ca.
Topping the list of complaints executives have about prospective employees are poor writing skills, according to a number of surveys and polls in recent years. Thirty-three percent of advertising and marketing executives polled last month by staffing services specialist The Creative Group, for example, said typos and grammatical errors are the most common mistake creative professionals make on their resumes. And earlier this year, a survey by The Wall Street Journal and Harris Interactive cited poor written communication skills as the top complaint about MBA students.
But is it a case of the pot calling the kettle black?
"In my capacity as an executive recruiter and executive search consultant, most of what I see is resumes and cover notes," says Peter Grech of the Toronto based Grech Associates Executive Search Inc.
"There certainly have been times where I have been a little bit disappointed based on what I've seen, where I had the expectation that the quality of the written communication would be better, or found in some cases that the message was clear, but there was sloppiness and grammatical errors.
"From my perspective," he says, "there is definitely a trend out there in the marketplace where the quality of communication is declining, including more sloppiness in written communication that's coming from executives."
"The primary source of the problem," says Teresa McGill, president of the Mississauga, Ont.-based Gandy Associates, Inc., which provides English communication training for corporations, "is not a lack of skills.
"I think there's a culture of e-mail communication which doesn't necessarily match up with traditional business culture," she says. "People aren't taking the time to proofread or write a well-constructed e-mail because they don't ascribe the same status to an e-mail as they do to a formal letter or a memo that they dictate to their executive assistant. It's so fast, and it's so informal."
Both Mr. Grech and Patricia Davies -- who provides communication training and consulting for executives and senior managers in major corporations -- believe the Black Berry is surpassing e-mail as the culprit.
"Typically, the communication executives send me from their Black Berries is quite horrific," Mr. Grech says. "You see people who'll send an e-mail message from their Black Berries and they've dropped out verbs and so on, and you think, 'Wait a minute, you're a very senior leader and you don't know where to put a comma?' "
Most executives recognize that what they're sending is less than perfect, Mr. Grech says, "but they figure the whole idea behind the Black Berry is speed and convenience and that as long as they're getting their message across, that's just fine."
It's a compromise that comes with risks. Ms. Davies compares carelessly crafted e-mails with wearing jeans when making a presentation and typos to having red lipstick smeared on your face. "Is that the image you want to project?" she asks.
There's a whole line of linguistics that looks at language as a badge of identity, Ms. McGill says. Consider the infamous email scams claiming to be from major banks. Visually, they have it down pat -- from the logo to the graphics.
"But every time you read one of those emails, you'll find a grammar, spelling or word-usage error," she says. "And isn't that interesting -- how we use our language discernment in order to screen out people who aren't legitimate?
"In a gentler way, we do the same thing when we receive any kind of written communication," she says. "We are evaluating whether that person is professional, trustworthy, competent, knowledgeable and credible based on their written communication."
While first impressions are not always accurate, Mr. Grech, Ms. McGill and Ms. Davies all put forth the argument that you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
"I formulate an opinion about someone very quickly based on how they communicate to me in the first instance," Mr. Grech says. "If they clearly haven't taken the time to spell-check something or to use proper syntax and grammar, then you can extrapolate that perhaps they're not the most organized, or perhaps they have difficulty prioritizing, and you start to question how effective they would be as a leader."
This is all much ado about nothing, some executives might think, since the fact is the majority are too busy leading their companies to do much of their own writing. They are leaders, thinkers and strategists, not wordsmiths. And the truth is writing is a responsibility that tends to fall on managers and other subordinates.
But therein lies another part of the problem, Mr. Grech says. "For the most part, they're not creating a lot of original communication. Typically, they're reviewing work put together by their managers and their subordinates, and there's a big difference between reviewing something and actually writing something from scratch.
"What happens is that you effectively become a bit rusty the more senior you get because you don't have the same opportunity to build that report or white paper from scratch.
"It's like anything," he says. "If you don't use it, you lose it."
At Toronto's Teranet Inc., hiring managers are told to distinguish a skilled immigrant's formal language proficiency from softer communication skills such as accent, word usage and style - cultural differences that have no bearing on a candidate's qualifications for a job. At Etobicoke's Iris Power Engineering Inc., recruiters use technical skills-based interviews rather than conversation-based interviews to decide who get the vacant positions.
At Mississauga's NoAb BioDiscoveries, all job applicants need to have credentials verified by a government-recognized service provider before undergoing interviews by a team of managers to "eliminate unintentional biases."
These Greater Toronto companies' successful diversity workplace practices will no longer be a secret with today's launch of a new website (www.hireimmigrants.ca) by the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council, or TRIEC.
The website, which is free, provides an online self-assessment to recommend human resources professionals with specific strategies for organizations. Viewers can also learn from other employers' experiences through profiled strategies.
"It's just too expensive not to do something about (workplace diversity) because (otherwise) you lose the opportunity to take the best candidates and recruit the valuable workforce skills in the current Canadian business environment," said Marilyn Barber, human resources and development vice-president for Teranet, whose company profile is among 18 other employers showcased on the website.
TRIEC manager Elizabeth McIsaac said one of the not-for-profit organization's key objectives is to change employers' perceptions on hiring skilled immigrant workers "by doing the right thing."
Last year, TRIEC hired a consultant to survey employers to find the best practices to improve access to employment for immigrants in Greater Toronto. Of 130 companies initially examined, 40 had detailed follow-up surveys.
"I don't think we have the best practices in Canada yet, but we have some promising practices," McIssac said.
"Employers can be uncomfortable about it, but if you tell them you understand they're doing a good job and want them to share the practices with others, they are happy to do it as long as they don't feel they are being measured up to something.
"These strategies apply to big companies or small companies depending on different situations," noted McIsaac, adding that the initial survey was funded by Canada Heritage and the website Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
Teranet's Barber said the e-service solutions company recognized that most skilled immigrants who have been hired have a good foundation in English, but lack the ability to communicate effectively in work-specific situations such as presentations or business writing.
Eight years ago, management offered a six-course communications program, focusing on pronunciation, conversation, idioms, presentations, business writing and leadership communication skills.
"In a country where we're trying very hard to be politically correct, some people are actually surprised that we'd bring attention to our employees who're having some difficulties in the language ... in getting understood. But they are grateful and appreciate the opportunities," explained Barber.
Teranet's 800 employees in Ontario come from 61 countries.
Because of its international clientele, Markham-based LEA Group, a consulting engineering firm, conducts businesses in different languages.
Employees familiar with a particular culture have written welcome notes in a prospective client's language and they also bring new knowledge to the workplace.
"It is great that Canada welcomes so many people from other parts of the world. Once they arrive, we have to make sure their life is productive," said LEA chair and chief executive officer John Farrow, adding that one-fifth of his 100
Canadian staff were educated and trained overseas. They speak 60 languages among them.
"We are in the business of selling expertise. Our expertise is in the head of the people we hired. We can't afford to just hire the talents in Canada. We are not doing it for charity by hiring immigrants. It just makes good business sense to hire the best talents out there."
Toronto Star | 2004-02-18 Pathways can lead to engineering jobs - expand / condense article Engineers benefit from Gandy Associates’ Language for Leadership training,
offered as part of Pathways program.
Special day more than feel-good exercise by WALLACE IMMEN
It took Rakesh Shreewastav nearly three years after he immigrated to Canada from Nepal to land a job in engineering, but at least he found work in his profession.
Despite having the help of professional recruiters, only 16 of the 29 who graduated with him from an intensive program to prepare foreign-trained engineers to work in Ontario found employment.
Nevertheless, Paul Martin, a director of the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers, which ran the Pathways program, believes it was a success.
He points out that many recent Canadian engineering grads aren't able to find jobs either.
"There is a myth out there that immigrants come here and are stuck driving taxis because the bad old professional associations are preventing them from having their credentials recognized," Mr. Martin says.
But that isn't the case in engineering, he says.
"There are too many engineers out there and not enough jobs for them.
"The problem isn't with credential recognition, because 60 per cent of foreign-trained engineers can get licensed without having to write a single exam."
The statistics for just one year sum up the problem, he says. There were 8,700 engineering graduates from schools across Canada in 2001, while about 16,300 immigrants entered the country with the intention of working in engineering, according to data from the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board, and Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
About 54 per cent, roughly 8,800, of those foreign-trained engineers settled in the Toronto area, which represents only 17 per cent of the Canadian engineering job market.
"That means there were more immigrant job seekers in Toronto than Canada's entire engineering graduating class," Mr. Martin says.
For Mr. Shreewastav, the road to employment was unexpectedly potholed.
When he arrived in Toronto in the winter of 2001, with advanced training and work experience in Russia, "I had only positive expectations," he says.
However, even though his qualifications were sufficient for him to work as an engineer, he needed the Ontario designation as a professional engineer, a P. Eng., to get the job he wanted in civil engineering. "It was," he says, "a very slow and lengthy process."
Ontario and most other jurisdictions in Canada require a full year of work experience in Canada to make sure applicants have a knowledge of the local codes and standards and business practices.
That's where the Pathways program came in.
It was "a really great step towards professional designation," says Mr. Shreewastav, who has found a job with the Ontario Ministry of Transportation.
The demand for the Pathways program was overwhelming and the participants were chosen from more than 2,500 applicants, Mr. Martin says. It included six weeks of intensive classroom training in Canadian workplace norms, work readiness and communication skills.
The society has stopped taking applications while the results of the first two pilots are re-evaluated by the Ontario Ministry of Labour, which financed the program.
Meanwhile, officials across the country are developing a national approach and Mr. Martin is a member of a federal task force on foreign engineering graduates that expects to report a national strategy for breaking down barriers to employment by May.
The task force, which includes representatives of government, professional associations and immigrant settlement agencies, is aiming for a co-ordinated "grassroots" approach by government and non-government groups on regulations, training, credential assessment and licensing, says Marie Lemay, CEO of the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers, whose members are the 12 provincial and territorial regulatory bodies.
The recommendations will not only be for professional associations, but also for governments, universities and colleges, Ms. Lemay says.
Mr. Shreewastav says he welcomes the advocacy and changes being made by governments and professional organizations for foreign-trained engineers. "But the result, I would say, is not significant yet."