Recently, Peter Paul, project leaders of ALLIES, spoke to the George Brown College Occupation-specific Language Training (OSLT) Graduating class of 2012.
First and foremost, congratulations to all you who are here today. Becoming proficient in the language of your occupation is critical to your future success. By graduating today, you have taken an important step forward. Your ability to communicate effectively with your colleagues in the workplace is central to your growth and development as a professional in Canada.
Before I share a few things I learned as a new immigrant to Canada (almost five years ago now), let me start at the beginning and share my journey with you. I hope that it will highlight a few things that helped me land on my feet in Canada. I will try to focus on the practical and effective strategies that helped me find work and be the right “fit” in the Canadian workplace. Of course, I am still learning. But I think I have a few lessons that I feel will be useful to you in your search for employment.
It’s about your skills
I came to Canada in 2007. I arrived here from the U.S. confident in my North American credentials and work-experience. I had heard about the “Canadian experience” dilemma that many skilled immigrant face, but I convinced myself that I could overcome that by highlighting my “Ohio experience.” I was going to sell the idea that “Ohio experience” was really not that different from “Ontario experience.” That was my strategy. In retrospect, it turned out not to be a good one.
Instead, I should have highlighted my skills. Employers are interested in your skills and your abilities. A more effective strategy would have been to break-down my work in community development and public policy analysis. I should have talked about the projects that I completed. I should have said things like: “I wrote position papers on policy proposals – for health and safety legislation and for the public works legislation,” and “I drafted legislation on community policing for adoption at County Council.”
The first lesson I learned in looking for work is: highlight your skills. Within a couple of minutes, let the person know what you have done. Within those important first impression minutes, make sure the person has the summary of your top accomplishments. Don’t rely on your titles. If you are an engineer, it’s already clear to them that you’re an engineer. Tell them about what you accomplished as an engineer. You built bridges, you designed a plant, you devised safety standards as a regulator.
If you are an accountant, tell them about the audits that you performed, or the accounts that you managed. Your titles do not speak for themselves in Canada. And, even if they are familiar, employers are interested in how you highlight your achievements. What can you do for them?
Meet more people (also known as networking)
Another thing that I did was cold calling. I realize that some of you may be cringing at the thought of it. I didn’t enjoy it either – but it works. I met many people in my field by calling them and requesting an information interview. Most people listened to me and scheduled a time for me to come in and meet with them. Only a couple of people said they were too busy to meet with me. That’s it. There was nothing scary about it at all. A couple of people said they had no time. I thanked them and called another number on my list.
Meeting and connecting with people is critical to finding your way to employment. Meet people any way you can – through networking events, through public talks at libraries and universities or museums, through social events at parks and other venues, even online. Take advantage of the many places and opportunities to meet and talk to as many people as you can. You never know where you may run into someone who knows someone who may have a lead for you. I know it can be discouraging, but you just never know. If nothing else, it gets you talking to many more Canadians. There is no downside to that – you learn more about Toronto and Canada by talking to Torontonians and Canadians.
Talking to anyone is useful. But let me take it a step further. Find a way to learn from someone in your field of work and experience. Use any tool that you can to find an “in” to your chosen field. One very effective way is to find a mentor in your field. It is a very simple idea – a Canadian professional is matched with a skilled immigrant in the same occupation. The best part? There are mentoring programs available to you already.
In the GTA, over 6,000 mentoring matches have been made between Canadian professionals and skilled immigrant like yourselves. This has resulted in a majority of mentees finding work in their fields. It is a proven strategy to help you find work.
You can find a mentor through a program like TRIEC’s The Mentoring Partnership. Or through programs at agencies that serve immigrants. Or you could find a mentor through other informal means.
I strongly recommend that you find someone who is knowledgeable about your profession here in Canada. I would go a step further and suggest that you find a mentor who is outside of your ethnic community. It will really help you learn understand how you can relate to your future colleagues in the workplace. It will teach you to listen carefully and pick up some of the nuances of communicating effectively with potential employers. And it will impress on you the importance of “soft skills” in the workplace.
I think this is an area that is a challenge to many immigrants. There is no short-cut to polishing your soft skills. You learn them only by increasing your interaction with Canadians. Learn to talk to people about anything – the weather, hockey, events in Toronto, the news, anything. A good way to think about this is to listen to or watch the news every day. It helps you in a couple of ways – it familiarizes you with the language used by most Canadians, and it teaches you about the issues that Canadians are talking about. So, when you meet someone, you have a few topics to discuss – the latest on something you heard about on the news, the weather, the Leafs, soccer, something. But you must do it. That is the key. And in time it will become natural for you to talk to everyone – including the person at the check-out lane at Canadian Tire, Walmart or the grocery store.
Everyone understands the need for new immigrants to take comfort from their community. But it is also very important to make new friends and establish an identity for yourself outside your community. The big advantage of interacting with those outside your community is that it helps you improve your language skills. You’ll continuously build your capacity to understand Canadian idioms and phrases.
Become members of associations, political parties, resident associations, environmental movements, book clubs, sports clubs, knitting clubs, whatever is happening in your neighborhood. Get involved and meet new people. You will never know who can help you out.
Another important aspect of your job search is projecting confidence and a positive attitude. I know that it is really hard out there. The competition is daunting and some of you are feeling like you have a real uphill climb. I urge you to stay positive by keeping the big picture in mind. You will find work and you have already done the right thing by improving your language skills. The fact that you have graduated from the OSLT class speaks to your commitment to becoming a Canadian professional.
And finally, I want to leave you with this: in the course of your search for work, someone will reach out and help you, and so when it is time, remember to pay it forward.
Help someone else who is in need. That is how we contribute to making our communities, our city and our new country even more vibrant and prosperous for us all.