Developing the Skills of B.C.’s Immigrant Workers

As local businesses rely more and more on immigrants ?to pick up the workforce slack, the need for language training and other skills development grows. But relatively few employers seem ready to make the necessary ?investment. The Granville Grand Hotel acts as a kind of catch-all landing pad for newcomers to Vancouver.?

Skilled immigrant workers
Leticia Ramirez (left), a new immigrant from Mexico, works as a housekeeper but wants to continue her education to become a radiology technician. The problem? Little English and even less time to learn it.

As local businesses rely more and more on immigrants 
to pick up the workforce slack, the need for language training and other skills development grows. But relatively few employers seem ready to make the necessary 

The Granville Grand Hotel acts as a kind of catch-all landing pad for newcomers to Vancouver.

More of a boutique hostel than a traditional hotel, the funky heritage-style building at Granville and Davie attracts young backpackers, ESL students and budget tourists from all over Canada and the world. But the hotel’s eclectic atmosphere also draws people who are contemplating a much longer stay in Vancouver, people who need a place to anchor themselves while they navigate the complexities of starting anew on the West Coast.

You’ll find this crowd on both sides of the front desk.

Among the new immigrants, temporary foreign workers and international students working for the Grand – and that’s nearly everybody – is housekeeper Leticia Ramirez. Originally from Mexico City, the 43-year-old moved to Vancouver three years ago to join her common-law husband, Juan Perez, the hotel’s handyman. Though she’d worked in hospital administration and was studying to be a radiology technician back in Mexico, Ramirez’s career in health care ground to a halt upon arrival in Canada.

Sitting down to chat in the Grand’s guest kitchen, Ramirez recounts a story familiar to many immigrants. She says she had no idea how hard it would be to make the transition, that she was ignorant about the long and complex process of having her credentials recognized in B.C. and that she was misinformed about the prospect of continuing her studies in radiology. Her most significant challenge, however, is a continuing struggle with the English language.

Of the 40,000 newcomers who arrive in B.C. each year seeking permanent resident status, 15 per cent have little to no English skills, according to BC Stats. Many more require some level of language training and other essential skills development in order to apply their existing educational and professional experience to a progressive career path. Those who don’t receive adequate support to obtain language and job skills often become mired in a rut of entry-level jobs. And that is a waste of economic potential this province can no longer afford, says Roslyn Kunin, a consulting economist and former regional economist with Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

“We have underused our immigrant workers. Very frequently, a lot of people who are in entry-level jobs are skilled professionals and capable of much higher-level jobs,” says Kunin. The price of leaving skilled immigrants languishing in low-skilled jobs extends beyond the dashed economic dreams of individuals, she says; it has wide-reaching economic implications that will become evident across the province over the next 10 years.


Immigrant and temporary foreign workers in Canada

According to B.C.’s Ministry of Regional Economic and Skills Development, more than one million jobs are expected to open up in the province by 2019. Of those, new immigrants and temporary foreign workers are expected to fill at least one-third, or more than 300,000 positions, necessitating the provincial government to actively encourage more international migrants to move here. Over the next four years, the government plans to triple the number of immigrants entering B.C. through provincial economic programs, from 3,500 to more than 10,000 annually. It also plans to expedite the process of recognizing foreign credentials as well as make it easier for the more than 68,000 temporary foreign workers and international students entering the province each year to extend their stay.

But with the expected influx will come increased pressure on businesses to help workers access settlement services, as well as language and culture training. Immigrants need to reach maximum productivity in the workplace, and fast, so they can move up the ranks to fill key vacancies at the higher levels. And they’ll need their employers’ help to do it.

“We’ve got to do better at finding people opportunities in their field or related to their field a lot faster than we’ve been doing,” says Kunin, noting that if an immigrant hasn’t transferred into their field by their fifth year in Canada, the odds of it ever happening are practically nil. “Or if we can’t get them back in their own professions, at least give them the opportunity to use their skills at a higher level in their new industries.”


Language and culture training for immigrants

That’s precisely the aim of SkillsPlus, a pilot project offered in the hospitality, tourism and retail sector in the Lower Mainland through the immigrant services provider Success.

Program co-ordinator Shalaleh Najafy explains SkillsPlus is designed to help businesses with fewer than 500 employees get more out of their entry-level immigrant workers in high-turnover industries by coaching them in essential job skills such as reading, writing, oral communication, working with others, body language and determining culturally appropriate interactions. Jointly funded by the provincial and federal governments through a partnership called the Canada-B.C. Labour Market Agreement, the program has been offered free of charge to individual businesses at their base of operation for the last 18 months. The fully customizable curriculum is designed to be cost neutral to employers (though they do have to allow time for workers to attend the sessions, usually one or two hours a week for 12 to 15 weeks) and can include add-on certifications such as FoodSafe or first aid.

By bringing the training to businesses and offering it free of charge, Najafy says she has two ends in mind for SkillsPlus: first, make training more accessible to immigrant employees so they become more versatile, productive and promoteable; and, second, encourage employers to recognize the value in investing in training for entry-level immigrant workers, who are often viewed as temporary and transient. “They need to be educated on what the benefits of training are and how it can help their business,” she says.

Granville Grand general manager Jean Cloutier says it took some convincing to get his former boss to sign on to the Skills­Plus program, which the staff completed just before last year’s Olympics. When the hotel changed hands last July, it was back to square one advocating for the go-ahead for another round of staff training. While hands-off owners may not see the advantage of going through the program, Cloutier says there’s a noticeable difference in his staff. “If I look at the staff who passed through the program, compared to the new staff now, they are more secure in what they’re doing,” he says. That translates into improved customer service, increased employee satisfaction and lower turnover.

Even Ramirez, the housekeeper with limited language skills, benefited, says Cloutier. SkillsPlus increased her confidence and gave a boost to her fledgling English vocabulary, resulting in better customer service that’s had a direct impact on the bottom line. “She is really important in our service because she has direct contact with these guests. And as I always explain, if you give good service, sometimes people will stay more than one night, and it’s happened.”

Economist Kunin agrees that employers who provide even a modicum of training support for immigrants stand to benefit economically. Showing a commitment to employees’ professional development will pay dividends in lower turnover rates, higher productivity, increased job satisfaction and retention. “If you treat them like long-term staff, if you say, ‘We will train you and if you are good here, you have a career,’ and especially if you can point to some other supervisors and managers that started at the entry level and moved up, then you will have good long-term staff,” she says.


English skills for immigrant workers

What someone such as Ramirez really needs to prosper on the job, however, are better English skills. While Kunin says it can be difficult for business owners to justify the need for English skills among behind-the-scenes staff such as housekeepers, the benefits of training are manifold. In the short term, it leads to better customer service and better communication with co-workers and supervisors; in the longer term, it allows those workers to advance in the organization. “They would not only be housekeepers, but they would now enter the whole human-resource scheme of the organization and have the potential to move up, providing the owner not only with the short-term maids but long-term housekeeping management, which is another shortage area that’s very important to the success of a business,” she says.

Free English classes are readily available for permanent residents through the provincially funded English Language Services for Adults (ELSA) program, which offers basic literacy, beginner and intermediate classes to permanent residents through community partners such as Success. Pilot programs for online advanced-level business English courses are also in the works through ELSA, which receives $30 million in annual funding from the province. WelcomeBC, the province’s main vehicle for settlement services, also provides language and cultural training as well as credential recognition and employment services to 100,000 newcomers in 66 communities throughout B.C. Nearly $400 million in federal and provincial funding has gone into that program since its inception in 2006. Some temporary workers also have access to free English classes through WorkSafe B.C. and other programs.

For Ramirez and many others, the problem isn’t lack of services but a lack of time. In three years, neither she nor Perez has been able to get any formal English training. With long hours at the hotel required to make ends meet – often 14-hour days, six days a week – going through the ELSA program (up to 15 hours a week part time and 25 hours a week full time) is virtually impossible. But without English, Ramirez has scant hope of transitioning back to her field in health care or even moving up in the hospitality industry. It’s a classic catch-22 that affects many immigrants working in entry-level jobs, says Success’s Najafy. She believes the course content in the ELSA program could be tightened up to become more efficient and industry-focused. “Immigrants have to go through Shakespeare and stuff like that to get English 12,” she says. “[Language training] can be short and specific to their jobs.” Developing a workplace-delivered English course similar to SkillsPlus might be another solution, but Najafy doubts business owners would buy into the time expenditure. “Their number one objective is not to train people; it’s to make money. So when they see anything as getting in the way of that, they see it as a problem,” she says.

That’s an attitude particularly prevalent in the small-business world, which accounts for the vast majority of employers in B.C. (According to BC Stats, 98 per cent of businesses in the province have fewer than 50 employees.) Najafy says her experience peddling SkillsPlus has shown a lot of resistance from small-business owners to get involved in even free training programs. Tight margins mean time is money, and there’s little extra cash around for employees to access private English classes.

Corporate-level immigrant workers

It’s a different story at the corporate level, where many skilled immigrant workers take advantage of tuition reimbursement programs and personalized education plans to improve their English skills. Vancouver Coastal Health, for instance, has been working with the provincial government and Kwantlen Polytechnic University to deliver advanced English training to practicing health-care professionals on a part-time basis that works around their schedules. Vancity offers tuition reimbursements toward individualized education plans that can include accent reduction and advanced English classes for ESL staffers who may need, or want, extra support.

Blenz the Canadian Coffee Co. Ltd. also offers a similar program, and CEO George Moen credits having a well-educated, well-supported immigrant workforce with his company’s success. With nearly 55 per cent of his head-office staff born outside Canada and a roster of international student interns steadily rotating through the office, language barriers are a fact of life at Blenz. When workers need formal English training, written or spoken, to truly unlock their skill set, the company foots the bill. “If it’s an employee with the corporation, absolutely, we pay for those courses,” he says.

At the end of the day, Moen says he believes the expenditure on language training at the head office level is returned in kind by a high level of employee satisfaction, retention and innovation brought on by a diverse workforce with multiple points of view. It also gives Blenz a broader consumer appeal, he says. “Go to any other coffee shop; we’re different. The staff in our stores is more culturally diverse, which I think gives us a competitive advantage because, look around Vancouver, we’re the cultural melting pot of the world these days.”

With B.C. a top destination within Canada for immigrants and foreign workers, Moen figures he has access to a never-ending talent pool to fill any jobs that may open as the baby boomers retire. In fact, he sees increasing reliance on immigration as a definite plus for his business, which has franchises throughout Canada, Japan and the Philippines. “We can tap the world,” he says. “Somebody can learn a language, but not everybody can learn a work ethic. The profile of somebody who comes to a different country to start all over again, that’s a motivated individual . . . that’s somebody I want to work with.”

There are limits to Moen’s zeal for immigrant training, however. Tuition reimbursements aren’t a courtesy extended to the front-line staff at his coffee shop franchises, 70 per cent of whom are ESL. “I’m not sure we’ll go there,” says Moen, echoing a view heard often by Success’s Najafy from business owners in the service industry. “For the bulk of those employees, we’re a job on their path to something else,” Moen continues. 

Whether it’s a dead-end path – for the Blenz barrista, or hotel housekeepers such as Leticia Ramirez – remains an open question.