March 7, 2005

Program helps foreign-trained professionals

An often discussed catch-22 for internationally trained professionals has been that they won’t be hired for a job in Canada without Canadian experience.

But that conundrum doesn’t hold water in the construction industry, says one expert.

“The excuse of saying: ‘Well, I don’t have Canadian experience, hence I can not get a job,’ — well, you know what, I don’t buy that,” said Leo Cusumano, manager, mechanical engineering and inspection for the City of Mississauga.

“I mean, you can sit there and whine about the fact that you don’t have Canadian experience, but let’s think about this. Buildings are buildings. Whether the buildings are in Hong Kong or in Canada, Newton’s laws, engineering principles, should be consistent. Gravity affects buildings in Canada the way it affects buildings in Hong Kong, or Iran.

“So they may not be familiar with the local codes and standards, however, they do have experience dealing with codes and standards. So I’m sure they are very adaptable to our local codes and standards.”

Cusumano is an employer representative on the advisory board of the bridging program Options. It is a partnership between the Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists (OACETT) and the Centre for Language Training and Assessment (CLTA). Its funding of more than $1.5-million comes from the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, Access to Professions and Trades Unit.

Cusumano has attended about half a dozen sessions to meet the participants and answer questions. He developed a handout package “to stimulate discussion” that provides an overview of building permits, discusses the importance of literacy, “our job function as building managers” and an “overview of some job interview topics, things to be ready for.”

Cusumano has been with the City of Mississauga since 1988. He also worked for EllisDon as a construction superintendent and, for the past four years, has taught evening classes in the Technology Department at George Brown College in Toronto. He has noticed that a large number of his students are internationally educated. “I find that I become a bit of an employment counselor at times. I don’t mind.”

He calls Options “one heck of a program”.

“It’s sort of a win-win situation. It helps them become involved in something that’s relevant to their training and experience, but at the same time we’re also preparing employees to fill positions for ourselves as employers.”

The program started in December of 2003 and will run until March, 2006. It will have a total of 180 participants, said Carolyn Cohen, senior manager, CLTA.

So far, 60 people have used the program and of those 51 per cent have been placed in the workplace, said Dave Lovelock, manager of career services, CLTA.

It costs each participant $1,180, including GST, for the 10-week program of half days or evenings. That sum also includes OECETT certification.

A big component of the program is communications training. To qualify for Options, an individual must speak English at a high intermediate to advanced level. From that starting point, their writing and speaking skills are developed, relating to the language of the Canadian workplace.

Cusumano strongly encourages newcomers to develop their communication skills. “I find that they have an extensive amount of the technical knowledge, and rather than invest in more technical training, the type of training they need is ESL, communications. Try to understand our business culture.”

Options teaches the unwritten rules in the workplace, Cohen said, such as hierarchies.

Also included, Lovelock said, are the 4 Ps of employment readiness: Performance (their transferable skills); Print (writing skills that are free of mistakes); Phone (knowing the correct tone and Canadianized manners); and finally, Personal (how to do an interview).

Cusumano also offers interview advice. “When you go to an interview, let’s focus on the similarities, what you have that relates to what we’re doing here. And that to me, would give them a more positive outlook. It’ll demonstrate some self-confidence in these interview situations.”

Getting to the interview, though, requires a variety of strategies. Options offers networking opportunities through OACETT, which Cusumano also promotes.

“I’m a big proponent of people becoming involved in these professional associations. Along with being able to reach their qualification by the respective association, it’s also an opportunity to become involved in some chapter activities, to attend meetings.”

He notes that there is an “underlying market for employment opportunities” and it’s helpful to make contacts. Another networking method he recommends is attending the free trade show at ConstructCanada. “If you want to spend half a day and walk the Metro Convention Centre, you are going to meet a lot of people that are either subtrades or suppliers of products —that’s networking.”

He also suggests some streetsmart tactics: walk up to a construction site office and offer your services, as a site clerk, for instance. “As long as you don’t walk in there attempting to gain control of the whole project because you have some PhD in engineering from back home. Be willing to take a lesser position but treat it as an entry point into our Canadian market.”

Take the name of a company that is advertised on a billboard where a new building is slated to be built and call, Cusumano said. It may not work, “but I guess you have to be prepared to try.”

Another method is to do volunteer work. “What is wrong with acquiring knowledge of our culture through volunteer activities? So maybe I don’t have a resume filled with Canadian employment related to my technical expertise,” however, he said, it is Canadian experience.

Finally, he said a plan is essential. “They do need a personal action plan. There’s no question.” He noted the expression that “people don’t plan to fail, but they do fail to plan.”

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