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Help wanted in the nonprofit sector: Skilled immigrants need not apply?

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When Erick came to Canada, he had a master's degree in psychology from an American university and over 10 years of experience in community work.

He says now that he also had a "false sense of confidence" in his expectation to find appropriate employment.

Erick sent out more than 200 resumes and was called for just two phone interviews, neither of which led to a job. In one case, the interviewer reached him when he was driving and couldn't talk.

She never called him back.

Given he had earned a US degree, "it never dawned on me I would be considered foreign-trained," he says. He also identifies himself as a visible minority: "I definitely don't look Caucasian, even though my mother was Spanish and my father Argentinean. My documents showed that I was born in Central America, and my accent did not help in those matters either."

After a few months of not finding a suitable position, he settled for an interim job in a picture framing business, then "fell into a comfort zone" for several years.

"I lost my motivation to search for a job in my area of interest: community work with a nonprofit organization."

Help wanted at nonprofits

Erick became one of many "underemployed" new Canadians. Two-thirds of university-educated recent immigrants to Canada are underemployed in jobs requiring no more than a college education or apprenticeship. Many of them are more highly educated than Canadian nationals.

And yet a 2008 survey completed by the HR Council for the Nonprofit Sector showed that 47% of nonprofit employers found it "difficult or very difficult" to find qualified staff. A full 70% of these respondents attributed their difficulties to the lack of applicants.

When asked to identify actions taken to make workplaces more attractive for recruitment and retention purposes in that survey, not a single respondent had "introduced strategies to recruit and retain immigrant and refugee employees". 

Accepting more immigrants per capita than any other country in the world and with a population comprising 16% visible minorities, multiculturalism and diversity are Canadian values and part of the national brand. Respect for and promotion of cultural diversity are not just nice Canadian ideas: research shows it's beneficial for creative thinking and innovation. There is a good business case for diversity in the workplace. There's a social case, as well. The exclusion of such groups from viable employment can have many deleterious effects on individuals, families and communities, including poverty and poor health.

Meanwhile, HR Council data from their 2008 research shows that only 6% of nonprofit employees have identified as a "visible minority", and only 1.8% were considered landed immigrants.

What's in a name?

Potential barriers start with ink on the resume. Amelita Navarro, a case manager at the Community Career & Employment Access Centre (CCEAC), a service of Windsor Women Working with Immigrant Women (WWWIW), says clients talk about changing their names so they might have a better chance of people actually contacting them after reviewing their resumes. This is particularly the case when they are applying for jobs that require a lot of time on the telephone.

While HR departments try to embrace a fair and inclusive process, job seekers suspect a resume with a difficult-to-pronounce name, foreign credentials and experience may be passed over when it's common to have 200 applicants for a single position. An openness by HR toward individuals who may have an accent is critical and employers may need to be more deliberate about this.

At the YMCA of Greater Toronto, for example, where diversity and social inclusion is a core value, staff diversity (44% of the organization's staff is non-Caucasian, born outside Canada) helps on the hiring side. Human Resources advisor Robina Yasin says they typically have a minimum of four people screening CVs, often with different cultural backgrounds, so "it's not like someone is going to get passed over because they have a name that's difficult to pronounce."

A matter of degree?

There is no disputing that foreign credentials are a common stumbling block. Although there is a healthy cultural mix amongst the staff employed at Toronto's Delisle Youth Services, which provides a range of services to support children and youth through difficulties, Executive Director Marg Campbell acknowledges it's particularly difficult hiring new Canadians into clinical roles. This is because many social workers immigrating to Canada have been trained in community development rather than the Western psychological orientation that has been taught and used throughout our social service sector. Delisle is making an effort to recruit new immigrants through Ryerson University's bridging program for Internationally Educated Social Workers.

But credentials can be a problem for more than just registered and licensed professionals such as social workers and doctors, where bridge programs are emerging. At UNICEF, an organization that clearly embraces diversity, HR Generalist Radhika Luthra says they do have to take curriculum into consideration and what people have learned while earning their degrees. For a management role, for example, she says they will ask for a list of courses to see if a person with an MBA outside of Canada has had similar training. Overall, though, Luthra cites communication skills as the greatest barrier to employment. "On paper the technical skills are perfect, but communication and presentation aspects can be lacking." For many roles those skills are simply critical to succeed.

No experience, no network

Many job seekers say they are also overlooked or turned away because of their lack of Canadian experience and familiarity with the region in which they live.

Deepa is from India. She arrived in Canada eight months ago armed with an MPhil, a master's degree in social work and a decade of NGO experience, including work with marginalized women and children.

She learned to revamp her resume, which had primarily outlined job responsibilities, in order to promote herself and her achievements. She's had a couple interviews and learned her lack of Canadian experience is a barrier. But she asks how she can get Canadian experience if nobody gives her an opportunity?

Back home she supervised up to six projects at a time, overseeing about 40 people. Now she works part-time in a customer service position in a mall and volunteers twice a week. She admits the role change has been difficult, though she accepts "it is part of learning."

A recent report by the Institute for Work and Health indicates that immigrants who are visible minorities, whose mother tongue is not English, or whose highest degree is from outside Canada are more likely to be overqualified and to lack supervisory responsibilities.

Continuing her career in social work remains a goal for Deepa.

"I never knew it would take this long. We were at a disadvantage because we came without friends or family here. We've discussed the possibility of going back. But getting work in's a process that we need to understand."

Learning the landscape

For those who are now happily employed, they say it has been a learning process. Amelita Navarro's family had relatives and friends when they arrived here from the Philippines. She also had a master's in management and a background in information technology, which may have helped smooth her transition.

She says "the internet was my best friend" in researching for information on immigration, settlement and work. Though the labour market was tough in Windsor, Ontario in 2007 and she couldn't find a role at her skill level, she looked at her bank of computer skills and then aimed for office positions where she could offer value. To date her biggest challenges have been the change from previously working in the corporate sector to the nonprofit sector, and the considerations of working in such a multicultural society, compared to the more homogeneous one in her country of origin.

Her initial job as database administrator at WWWIW was the first step toward her current position as a case manager helping women with their work search. She's happy with the direction her career has taken and her long-term goal is to be an entrepreneur. She's already started a small business.

Robina Yasin, who has a degree in Psychology and worked in HR in Pakistan, also found a good fit in HR at the YMCA after a number of jobs elsewhere. She has continued her studies and says she feels very much at home in her current work environment, where people receive diversity training and take an interest in different cultures.

Erick eventually sought the assistance of a job search program and "followed the advice to a t". He's happily employed in the nonprofit sector, has been promoted rapidly and has found his niche at Skills for Change, helping others new to Canada find jobs.

Volunteering as a job search strategy

Settlement and employment agencies have diverse staff that are familiar with the common frustrations and can help new Canadians with the job search process. Finding a mentor is also cited as one way that can really help people plug in.

Diane Labelle-Davey, director of human resources and volunteer relations at the Ontario Trillium Foundation, which provides funding to many settlement organizations, is a champion of social inclusion. The foundation has an admirable record on diversity and Labelle-Davey currently mentors three HR professionals: one each from Barbados, Zimbabwe and Jamaica. Her best advice to job seekers looking for work in the nonprofit sector is to volunteer, so they can develop working relationships, potential local references and a network.

With over 1,000 volunteers, volunteering is also "part of the DNA" of the YMCA of Greater Toronto, says Vice President of Human Resources and Organizational Development, Melanie Laflamme. The organization won a Diversity in Governance award from Maytree in 2008.

Laflamme believes a key challenge is the fact many new Canadians are screened out in the early stages of the hiring process. She encourages colleagues to go beyond the resume, which doesn't give the whole picture, and give people an opportunity to present themselves in an interview. "If you don't bring them to that stage, you are closing the door." On the other side of the coin, she says "the cover letter cannot be underestimated. Job seekers need to demonstrate to potential employers that they've looked into the organization and feel there is a match."

Further logistical barriers

Even when new immigrants learn that networking and volunteering are critical first steps toward working in the nonprofit sector, logistical issues such as child care, travel time and unanticipated expenses get in the way. This is particularly true for women.

Sultana Jahangir — who has a Master's Degree in Social Science and is a former field worker with the world-famous Grameen Bank in Bangladesh – recognized this and started an organization to help hundreds of women in east Toronto who find themselves in this situation. The South Asian Women's Rights Organization (SAWRO) advocates to have government address these issues and also helps women become more integrated into Canadian society. SAWRO offers settlement workshops and a range of services including assistance with English and computer training.

Jahangir says 80% of the women they have surveyed have university degrees, many in political science, social work or accounting and 60% have master's degrees. She says the vast experience and talents of these women are lying fallow and many women have been stuck at home and isolated when they could become valuable members of the charitable sector.

Given that research by the HR Council has shown that over half of people employed in nonprofits found their current role through word of mouth, current career prospects for these women are less than dazzling.

The irony is that many were sold on the idea of better opportunities in Canada. Instead, many are realizing they have to settle for something less.

Shrija, who has two master's degrees in international development and several years of experience in Nepal, her country of origin, has decided "I don't need a high position. I'll take an entry level job. I just want an opportunity to get engaged and make a contribution." She sees it will take time to build a network and emphasizes that a lot of new Canadians are sincere and willing to work hard.

"It is really tough for us to build Canadian experience," explains Jahangir. She wants employers to realize that "When we have no money, it's hard to do volunteer work. Volunteer work should come from the heart, but we're fighting for food and survival. We just want [people to] give us an opportunity to participate with the experience we brought from our own countries. We can be an asset for Canada. The Canadian government has already determined we're skilled workers. But why should we come here if there is no job for us in this sector?"

Caroline Veldhuis is a past editor of CharityVillage®.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

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