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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Immigrants, work agencies colloborate to fill market needs

By Jane van der Voort
Special to The Toronto Sun

Carolina Rey came to Canada a year and a half ago with a solid background in industrial engineering, and a vision for her future.

And though prepared for hardship, she was taken aback at the resume and interview preparation necessary to find a job in her field.

"It is a big relief to have this job," says Rey, 27, who was hired last September as a logistics assistant at The Shopping Channel. "We knew it would be hard to start a life here. We knew we would have to start from zero, even with the smallest things like getting a credit card."
Carolina Rey of Columbia was able to find work in Toronto in her field -- logistics -- through Skills For Change, one of 75 immigrant work assistance agencies operating in the city.

She and husband Marcelo Jaramillo, 29, immigrated to Canada from Bogota, Colombia.

"We were looking for a safer life and a future for our family," says Rey, who worked as an operations and logistics specialist at a Bogota manufacturing plant. Her husband, an electronics engineer, was an IT specialist.

But like the approximately 250,000 immigrants who arrive in Canada each year -- 100,000 who annually make their homes in the Toronto area -- Rey and Jaramillo discovered they lacked some basic yet very necessary skills.

They sought the expertise of Skills For Change, one of 75 immigrant work assistance agencies in Toronto. The couple enrolled in Sector Training, Information and Counselling, a pioneer program specifically geared to immigrants educated as engineers, accountants, IT and health-care professionals.

"It's not something they can just do -- come into the country and practise their profession," says Peggy Edwards, executive director of Skills For Change, which trains and assists more than 6,000 people a year with a staff of 48 and a budget of about $3 million.

The agency offers a range of courses to hone job-search skills, English skills and programs to "Canadianize" clients' educations and work experiences.

As well as STIC, the agency's sector-specific programs include a retail workers' training program in partnership with The Bay. Another new project is the financial and office assistant program that was designed and marketed to the City of Toronto.

Yet each initiative is an individual and concerted effort. "There is not a systematic, comprehensive strategy for entry into the Canadian labour market. And not just for any job, but for a job that taps into the skills and experience for which this immigrant has been chosen," Edwards says.

The lack of strategy shows in the reality of the workplace. "You need Canadian work experience to have a job, but in order to get a job, you have to have experience," Edwards says. "So we encourage our clients to volunteer."

She is also committed to the success of mentoring since 80% of Skills For Change clients had found jobs in their profession within three months of being matched with a mentor.

As well, Edwards wants to develop an alumni association to keep successful clients linked with Skills For Change, especially for help with job location and retention. It's an important initiative in light of funding guidelines that say re-trained immigrants must be working within three months of course completion.

"The reality is that we are able to help about 50% -- three months is not a long time. We struggle to reach that goal," she says. Funding is also a concern for immigrants ineligible for loans and student loans

to pay for upgrade courses. In partnership with the Maytree Foundation, Metro Credit Union now offers the Immigrant Employment Loan Program.

"It's a real issue with people coming to Canada," says CEO Howard Bogach. "They have the skills and the motivation, but they keep walking into these closed doors."

The start-up loan program offers from $2,000 to $5,000 to clients who have been pre-screened by Maytree, and who have also been turned down at other banks. The loans must be paid off within three years, but principal payments are not required until 90 days after completion of the course.

"We're crying out in Canada for people in engineering, accounting, finance and especially pharmacy skills," Bogach says. "So, with the help of Maytree, this program works out great for everybody."

(Jane Van Der Voort ( is a Toronto-based freelance writer.)

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