Xerox Canada survey: Immigrants bring innovation

The Xerox Research Centre of Canada released this week a survey that shows that many Canadian businesses associate diversity with innovation, despite the ongoing hiring difficulties faced by skilled immigrant workers in the real world.

The national survey of 1,000 workers—conducted by Leger Marketing—found that almost eight out of 10 respondents said that diversity of culture and background was a big diversity booster in the enterprise. Almost four-fifths of the workers felt that its diversity gives Canada a leg up in fostering innovation. However, at 38 and 35 per cent, individual talent and experience had the greatest effect on innovation, while only half said that exposure to different cultures aided creativity.

Hadi Mahabadi, vice-president and manager of the Xerox Research Centre of Canada, said that he was surprised by the number of respondents who tied diversity to innovation—especially in the Atlantic provinces, which, he said, are not as culturally diverse as cities like Vancouver and Toronto.

Despite these results, he acknowledged the challenges that many skilled immigrants face in entering the workforce. And the preference for non-foreign workers does often prevail—even in the face of the IT skill shortage. Earlier this year, IT industry advocacy group CATA released a report entitled “On the Road to Building an ICT Framework for Internationally Educated Professionals (IEP),” which was based on two national surveys and six focus groups separately involving IEPs and employers.

Said CATA vice-president of research Kevin Wennekes, “Instead of making a concentrated effort to hire [internationally educated professionals, or IEPs], they instead prefer to build or develop their Canadian contacts.”

He said that, during the focus groups conducted for the report, he heard many anecdotes of IEPs submitting two very similar resumes, where one had their real name, and the other a more “Canadian-sounding” name—most of the time, the Canadianized resume got a call-back, while the resume submitted under their own name was ignored.

The Xerox Centre has reaped the reward of bucking this trend, however. Boasting a staff comprised of 50 per cent immigrants from 35 different countries, Mahabadi said that his scientists average 1.5 patents per year; the Centre itself has racked up over a 1,000 patents already.

Mahabadi cautions against hiring skilled immigrants just for the sake of doing so; it must be done in tandem with finding the right candidate with the appropriate mix of knowledge, talent, experience, and expertise. He suggests, for example, sourcing possible hires through one’s network or industry events (such as conferences) so that one finds the skills…but from an unconventional place.

Companies often cite roadblocks to employing foreign workers, including language barriers and cost. While Mahabadi does have to front the cost of immigration lawyers and English training, he said that there is plenty of ROI to be had from increasing the diversity in one’s business. (And, he pointed out, there are government programs available that pay for an immigrant’s initial training, allowing companies to “test-drive” their foreign hires.)

One benefit is a stronger global connection. Said Mahabadi: “Diversity is a big help in business success, especially now that we have to compete on a global level. (Foreign workers) can understand customer needs in their part of the world. They can satisfy the needs of the culture of another world.” For example, the power goes out regularly in certain parts of the world, a fact that a company might not have clued in on unless a foreign worker from there was able to share that fact with them—and then adjust design specifications accordingly.

Such a global perspective would prove especially valuable to small and medium-sized businesses that might not be able to afford a wide-ranging research or testing program. This will result in a cost-effective, worldly design and marketing process.

And, according to the report, diversity is also necessary on a wider scale, due to the skills shortage and the need to maintain the country’s international innovation profile: “Canada must recruit and integrate highly qualified/skilled ICT workers into the Canadian labour force to be positioned to compete globally,” the CATA report said.

Said Mahabadi: “Canada has to switch from a resource-based economy, and to do that, we need to have multi-talented people in science and technology, and that means diversity.”

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