Immigrants transition into the IT field

Many people who’ve taken a taxi driven by a new immigrant have had the experience of discovering, in the course of chit-chat with the cabbie, that he once worked as an engineer back in Iran or obtained a PhD in physics in Russia — but was unable to find a job in his field in Canada.

New immigrants with professional backgrounds often face barriers when seeking employment in Canada, from lack of recognition of their foreign credentials and work experience to problems with language and culture. While there are fewer professional designation restrictions on those practicing within the IT field as there are in engineering and medicine, barriers nevertheless exist.

“The issue we’ve identified is a lack of business communication skills,” says Paul Swinwood, president of the Software Human Resource Council (SHRC), a nonprofit council dedicated to the Canadian IT sector. Having enough English to drive a cab is one thing, he says, but having enough command of business concepts to communicate properly is quite another.

“Foreign-trained professionals, when they try to communicate in the Canadian business milieu, often have significant shortcomings,” says Swinwood, pointing out that business analysis and communications skills are growing increasingly important in the IT sector overall, and are a fundamental requirement for most IT positions. “There are only so many back-room jobs available nowadays where communication is not key,” he says.

The SHRC is looking into modifying the intensive nine-month Information Technology Program (ITP) it developed in 1997 to help people make career transitions into IT from other backgrounds. Currently, the business simulation component of the ITP allows students to learn real-world business skills. Students work in teams to form a make-believe IT consulting company: they elect officials, prepare proposals to submit to companies looking to expand their IT infrastructure, and make final presentations to pitch their services to real companies participating in the program.

“We’re looking at what we can do with the ITP program for landed immigrants so they can participate in the business simulation portion, which helps them learn the nuances of Canadian business. The ITP programs we’ve run in the past have been very successful, and about 50 per cent were foreign students,” says Swinwood.

Mark Wallace, manager of ITP and computer training at Champlain College, has first-hand knowledge of the problems new immigrants encounter. “Students are looking for a program that will give them known IT certifications, and they want Canadian work experience. That’s something I hear again and again,” he says.

“Many students have thick CVs detailing years of experience, but often it’s on outdated software or hardware, or their previous employers are companies that are unknown here. It’s difficult for Canadian employers to bring them on board with these unknowns. Also, cultural differences are spotted in interviews, for example, views towards working with women in authority, or differences in leadership styles or attitudes towards teamwork,” says Wallace.

Dana Andries, an ITP program student at Champlain who recently emigrated from Romania, describes the challenges she faces. “I have a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and I worked in network administration for five years in Romania. It’s difficult, when I first came here I didn’t know French or English, and everything was new for me. I didn’t have any papers to show that I know about IT. I knew it would be difficult to find a job; you have to have contacts and make phone calls. Here you have to be more aggressive — you have to sell yourself.”

These capitalistic expectations of hustling skills are often show-stopping hurdles for people unaccustomed to the business culture. “We often get very highly trained people in the program who simply cannot make the connection with employers to get jobs,” says Wallace, adding that many students come into the program after enduring a period of time making failed attempts to find work on their own.

The last three months of the ITP program is a co-op term with participating companies, and this is the key to success for many students, says Wallace. Many companies treat it as a de facto trial period. “It’s the back door in, because often companies will take work-term students even if no jobs are available at the time. If someone leaves or the company expands while they’re there, they’re the first to be hired,” he says.

Champlain College has been running the ITP program for over nine years, and has a large base of participating companies. “We’re often dealing with the same companies, and we find that those that hire ITP students tend to come back, so we get a lot of return customers,” says Wallace.

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