Tapping the Global HR Market

It’s hard to find good help these days – especially the IT variety. With Year 2000 projects in full swing and pervasive new technology applications such as electronic commerce coming on stream, Canadian employers are beating the bushes for skilled workers. Consequently, more and more companies are looking overseas for help in meeting their HR needs. The interest in recruiting outside Canada has grown since the federal government recently introduced a streamlined process for bringing in people with certain skills that are in short supply, such as programming and software design.

In India, Korea, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, to name some of the most popular recruiting sites, there are sizable pools of information technology talent. Because of North America’s higher standard of living, and in many cases because of political or economic turmoil at home, many talented people are only too eager to move if they can get job offers. So how does a Canadian IT shop go about dipping into this overseas talent pool?

For starters, you must be proactive. Most immigrants arriving in Canada with technology skills already have job offers in their pockets. If you want to hire IT people from abroad, you usually have to recruit them abroad. The good news is, the task may be easier than you think. Says Peter Rekai, an immigration lawyer and partner in the Toronto law firm Rekai & Johnson, “There’s a general perception that offshore recruiting is difficult to do. It isn’t that difficult.”

That’s not to say that you might not need some help. Unless you’re a large company with some inside knowledge of the countries where you’re thinking of looking, or better yet a multinational able to hire people where you find them and transfer them to where you need them, you’ll probably need the services of recruiting professionals. “You’ve got to work with someone who knows the local marketplace,” says James Fehrenbach, vice-president of strategic business development at The CEO Group, a Markham, Ont., high-tech recruitment firm.

USING THIRD PARTIES

There are two main ways of employing a worker from overseas. You can hire the person as a full-time, permanent employee or you can bring him/her in as a consultant on contract through a third party. The difference with foreign workers is that you probably will want to involve a third party even if the people you recruit will become your own employees. Don’t expect a third party to take on all the risk, though. A recruiter will help you hire overseas, but you have to make the hiring decisions and live with the results.

“I will go over there and help facilitate the process,” says Jim Pearse, vice-president of recruiting firm Ward & Associates in Toronto, “but I’m not bringing people over here on spec.” In fact, it would be hard for a recruiter to do so, since workers need job offers in hand to get into the country.

The way Ian Martin Information Technology Inc. of Toronto handles the process is fairly typical. Richard Mills, international recruiting manager at IMIT, explains that when his firm has a client looking for some offshore talent, it first sits down with the client to settle on which are the best countries in which to look.

How do you decide that? Martyn Bassett, partner and co-founder at Bassett Laudi Partners Inc. in Toronto, says it depends on what skills the employer wants. In particular, are you looking for pure technical expertise, or are communication skills very important? If the latter, you will probably favour countries where English is fairly widely spoken. Korea, for instance, might not be a suitable candidate. Although it is a popular source of technically proficient people, communication skills are often lacking, says Bassett. In India and much of Europe, it is not hard to find people who are fairly fluent in English.

“If the employees are going to be in a back room, then you can get away with poor communication skills,” says Pearse. “If they’re going to be somewhere up front, where they’re communicating with customers or users, then you need something better.”

Keep in mind that technology and language proficiency may not be the only skills your new employee needs. “One thing that we’re seeing a lot of with our clients is that there’s tremendous focus on understanding of the business process,” notes Gord Stein, vice-president of marketing at CNC Global, a Toronto-based group with interests in high-technology recruiting. “One of the challenges is that a lot of offshore workers don’t possess those skills.”

THE HIRING PROCESS

Having chosen a country, a recruiter will pull together a batch of resumes from would-be employees and set up interviews. IMIT sends one of its own interviewers on ahead of its client’s representatives to interview candidates, who generally would have been pre-screened by the recruiter’s contacts in the country to ensure they have the essential technical and communication skills. IMIT also uses online testing services to evaluate technical ability. Then the client gets a further shortened list of candidates to interview during a visit of a couple of days. On a recent trip to Korea, Mills says, a client was given a short list of 60 candidates and hired 28 of them. Pearse says Ward & Associates interviewed 50 candidates on a recruiting trip to Russia recently, picked 30 of them to write a follow-up test, and finally offered jobs to five.

Obviously an overseas trip makes little sense if you are looking to hire one person. Mills says larger companies, especially software developers, are the most enthusiastic overseas recruiters, because the numbers of people they need make the effort involved worthwhile.

The typical pattern is for an employer to send two people overseas to interview the candidates who survive initial screening by a recruiting firm. One of these will be from human resources, the other someone with the technical background needed to evaluate the candidates’ qualifications. These recruiters must really be on their toes, as the task they face is a difficult one.

Hiring good people is always a tricky process – a mixture of science and art in which mistakes happen to the best of us. This is doubly true in hiring workers from overseas. At least when you hire locally, you are dealing with familiar qualifications and have a good idea what a former employer would have expected of the person. Every employer in Canada has some idea of what to expect of a University of Waterloo graduate, or what sort of expectations the Royal Bank might have had of a former employee. You know much less about qualifications from another country. Three years’ experience in network administration might have involved the latest NetWare and NT releases, or an ancient ArcNet last upgraded in 1982. The unfamiliar university from which your candidate graduated may be excellent, or it may not be.

Cautions Pearse, “You really have to watch it, in terms of the skill level of people, because in a lot of countries, the technology might not be as current as what’s needed in the market that we serve.”

GETTING THEM INTO CANADA

Once you pick your people, of course, the job is not over. As you fly home, the immigration lawyers are on their way out to start the next phase of the process. Although the Canadian government has speeded up the immigration process for software workers due to the skills crisis, there is still some paperwork to be done.

“The employer no longer has to go to the local Human Resources Development Canada office and prove to them that they’ve tried to hire a Canadian candidate,” says Rekai. That has taken three to eight weeks off the process. However, you still have to make an application, possibly provide proof of a medical examination, obtain the work permit and maybe a passport or exit visa from the worker’s home country, and get your new employee to Canada.

Once you offer someone a job that fits into the Canadian government’s list of fast-tracked, hard-to-fill technical jobs, the chances of the government telling that person he or she can’t come to Canada are fairly slim. Especially when dealing with a good-sized employer, Mills says, Ottawa is unlikely to second-guess the company’s hiring decision. The one thing that might stop someone getting into Canada is a medical problem, he says. However, Rekai adds that in some cases, you may be asked for proof the person you want to hire actually has the skills the job requires. Sometimes the prospective employer’s say-so is good enough; in other cases the employee may have to provide references from previous employers or other documentation.

HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE?

How long the whole process takes varies widely with the country in which you choose to hire. It is only partly a question of what the local authorities are like, though that does affect the process. Another factor is how popular workers from that country are with Canadian employers – the more of them being hired, the busier the local Canadian immigration officials tend to be, so the longer it takes to get the paperwork done. For instance, getting paperwork through the Canadian immigration office in New Delhi can be very slow, Rekai says, because of the high Canadian demand for Indian workers and also because of widespread concern about the validity of documentation in that country. Canadian authorities “check and re-check” prospective immigrants’ documents, he says.

Hiring in mainland China is said to be one of the greatest nightmares. Since people need government permission to leave, you have to deal with the Beijing authorities as well as Immigration Canada. Rekai describes it as “hopeless”. Fehrenbach of The CEO Group is a bit kinder. “It’s getting better,” he says. “Bribes work. Because of the improvement in the economy, people now have money, so they’re starting to be able to work their way through the process.”

In fact, the length of the process may be a factor in choosing where you recruit in the first place. “You have to really ride with the immigration flow here,” Rekai says. “You can’t really go in the opposite direction. If you need someone quickly … don’t look to get someone from India.”

Russia and Eastern Europe are popular sources of IT workers too. Unfortunately, that is largely because of the political and economic turmoil in the region. Fehrenbach says that when The CEO Group held hiring events in Eastern Europe not long ago, it was “pretty much overwhelmed by the number of people that came to our events.” The problem, he says, was hooking those workers up with Canadian employers – a problem that ultimately led the firm to decide its hiring-fair approach wasn’t well suited to overseas recruitment.

U.S. COMPETITION

The U.S. is a tough competitor for Canadian firms looking to hire foreign workers. Mills says Canada is viewed worldwide as one of the most desirable destinations for globe-trotting technical workers, but in most people’s minds it takes a back seat to the U.S. “I would say the U.S. is the preferred destination,” Pearse says. “The salaries are better, and if people are making the jump, so to speak, they might as well go to the U.S.”

At best, it may be a toss-up for the prospective employee. For many, the first priority is getting out of their home countries, so they will head for whichever country issues a visa first. Canada may have an advantage in some cases, because it is easier here than in the U.S. for an immigrant worker to apply for permanent residency while on a work permit. Mills says that “in some countries, such as Korea, Canada seems to be the chosen destination.”

Not only is the U.S. a tough rival when Canadian firms go shopping abroad for IT workers, but our proximity to the U.S. also makes it possible for foreign employees to use Canada as a stepping stone to the American job market. Ward Associates’ Pearse warns that employers should be aware of this, but he adds that there isn’t much you can do about it, other than rely on your instincts to tell you which job candidates are willing to make a commitment to your firm.

Of course, there’s always the chance of a better offer from another Canadian company too, but employers are a bit better protected on this front. When you hire a foreign worker, Pearse explains, you hold the papers allowing that person to work in Canada, so he or she cannot easily change jobs without your agreement. If the person leaves for the U.S., though, you have no recourse.

ANTICIPATING WORKER NEEDS

Nor would there be much you could do if your employee decided to quit and return home, and that temptation must surely strike many people who leave their families to work in a strange (not to mention cold) country. Of course, many who come to Canada do so to escape unemployment or political turmoil, but the culture shock can still be too much for some of them. Though you can’t stop someone from returning home, you can try to make the settling in process as painless as possible.

The employer should be prepared to meet some special needs when a foreign employee first arrives. “There’s somewhat of a culture shock,” observes Joshua Gold, an overseas recruiting specialist at Ward & Associates. There are also the practical problems of arriving in a new country. “Some of them don’t come over with a lot of clothes,” Gold says. They may also not have much cash, so employers sometimes have to advance money to help their new employees get through the first weeks.

To anticipate what other problems might arise, think carefully about the things you do every day and what problems you might have landing in a strange country where you don’t know the institutions or speak the language. The new arrival needs a driver’s license, a bank account, a telephone and a Social Insurance Number. He or she may need to learn how to make a long-distance call here – it doesn’t work quite the same way in every country – where to buy groceries, how to ride the subway. The list is daunting. “If you really want to do it right,” Gold says, “you have to be there to take care of people’s needs.”

Third parties can help here too. Mills notes that most cities have associations of people of different ethnic origins. Putting a newly arrived worker in touch with a local association from his or her country can help the person meet people with similar backgrounds and get settled in. Churches may be another source of support.

A recruiting firm may help you with this as well. IMIT, for instance, does all of this work when it hires the employees and then contracts them out to you, says Mills, and it will help with most of these things even if it simply helps you hire the people directly onto your own payroll.

Bassett downplays the acclimatization problems somewhat. People recruited to work in IT in Canada often speak fairly fluent English, he says, and “in general they’re getting paid fairly well.” New workers may have some adjustments to make, but often things are better for them here than they were at home. And if your firm is in the Toronto area, you have the benefit of bringing people to a multicultural city where few would feel out of place.

If you do your pre-hiring homework, check candidates’ qualifications carefully, have patience with the immigration process, and are prepared to do some initial hand-holding, recruiting overseas can be one way to overcome the shortage of technology skills at home. However, don’t expect it to be the answer to all your prayers.

“The world in general is becoming a little fished out for IT workers,” says CNC Global’s Gord Stein. He advises that you consider overseas recruiting as part of your hiring strategy, but don’t expect to meet all your needs this way. Whether at home or abroad, the skills you need may be hard to find.

Happy hunting.

Grant Buckler is a freelance writer specializing in information technology. He is based in Kingston, Ont.