Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Toronto immigrant networks connect newcomers with jobs and community help

Toronto immigrant networks connect newcomers with jobs and community help

March 7, 2012 00:03:00
Nicholas Keung
IMMIGRATION REPORTER
Lara Zaylah arrived in Toronto last March with her husband and their 2-year-old son, with no family or friends in the city.

Five months later, the Lebanese auditor got her first job in Canada, as a senior internal auditor for an insurance company, thanks to networking.

Although her fluency in English and work experience with two of the world’s top accounting firms were an asset to get her foot in the local job market, Zaylah says networking — both professional and personal — was a key to her success.

“You have to go out and meet a lot of people, not just related to your careers, but for all other stuff. They give you the information, support and encouragement you need,” she says. “When you put everything together, that was the outcome.”

Recognizing the strength of community associations helping immigrants, the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council recently launched the Professional Immigrant Networks (PINs) website.

Its goal is to “forge connections between immigrants, employers and community agencies,” with the ultimate objective of advancing immigrant employment, says manager Raquel Sevilla.

The website features a directory searchable by profession or ethno-cultural group, individual success stories, an event calendar and background on each of the 32 community groups and agencies that form the network.

There is also a “log-in” section, where immigrant leaders and partners can learn about the networks, connect and share resources. Features include messaging functions, discussion boards, a resource library and a skills and resource exchange board.

“A lot of times, immigrants are not accessing the (settlement and employment) programs because they don’t know they exist,” explains Sevilla. “And they make their first stop within their own community. These community groups are the natural gateway.

“We are working with these groups to arm them with the right, relevant information and keep them up to speed. It is important that we open up the channels of communications.”

While still in Lebanon, Zaylah did her homework on Toronto’s community organizations and approached them for help soon after her arrival. Although they didn’t directly lead her to her job with Foresters, they prepared her for her success.

“You really need to work on yourself, step by step, be patient,” says Zaylah, who got her job through a recruitment agency. “It is your duty to work with it, learn as much from others and get as much info as you need, or else you will never make it.”

There are a wide range of PINs, from small groups that literally lead newcomers by their hands to job interviews and apartment shopping to registered organizations that offer formal mentoring programs.

A year ago, Susan Blake founded the Caribbean Immigrants Network with several recent newcomers from the islands.

“When I came here (in 2008), I did not have the luxury of having somebody to tell me to do this, to do that. The information is there, but not packaged at one place,” recalls the Whitby woman, who has BA from Jamaica and an MBA from England.

Her network’s two-dozen members — from Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and Antigua — volunteer to share their experiences and lessons learned with new immigrants, those who come after them. They do everything from taking members to job interviews to employment referrals or giving someone a lift to an apartment for rent.

“We want to make things easier for others, through our own experiences” says Blake.

Paula Calderon, president of the 700-member Canadian Colombian Professionals Association, says most of the community groups are run by volunteers, who share the same drive to give their compatriots a leg up.

“We don’t have a magic wand, but we are willing to give whatever we have,” says Calderon, whose group runs a mentoring program and holds regular workshops to help newcomers network with established members in the community.

“The PIN initiative really helps give more visibility to associations like ours by putting the word out there. This is just the beginning of something that could be really big.”

Reza Ghazi, president of the Iranian Canadian Network, agrees.

“PINs help us obtain knowledge we didn’t have and enhance our programs. Their forums enable us to exchange info, good or bad,” explains the Toronto mortgage broker. “The project is a great collaboration for everyone.”

Funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada and sponsored by Scotiabank, PINs benefits employers as well as immigrants. With an increasingly diverse population, newcomers are both a source of international talents and market growth.

“We recognize that professionals coming into our country are not just prospective employees and managers, but also customers,” says Pankaj Mehra, director of India and South Asia markets in Scotiabank’s multicultural banking unit.

“Immigrant employees can be important ambassadors for the bank, by not only helping us grow our business, but also helping us strengthen our ties to their communities.”

Mehra still remembers the difficulty he faced getting a credit card when he first came here 16 years ago, because he lacked financial credit history.

Understanding the hurdles newcomers face, Scotiabank launched the multicultural banking unit to improve services, and created programs such as a secured credit card for newcomers to make the transition easier.

“The PINs are a win-win for employers and newcomers,” says Mehra, adding that employees have helped 1,500 newcomers through the bank’s mentoring program.