Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Barriers? What Barriers?

In supporting clients with their career development, often times the focus is helping individuals overcome barriers such as language, education level, or age.  However, classifying certain things as “barriers” as can be short sighted.  Often the very things that we view as disadvantages can be advantages.

At the moment I’m only a few chapters into Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, where he examines the stories of classic “underdogs” highlighting the role that the perceived “barrier” played in the success of the individual.  Typically the individual finds a way to change the game in some way; to play by his/her own rules where the disadvantages are actually a source of strength. 

Malcolm notes that often individuals with barriers strive relentlessly to become a small fish in a big pond.  Although this would typically signify success, all too often, you can’t get noticed with so many high achievers around you.  Instead, Malcolm notes that the underdog becomes successful by becoming a big fish in a little pond. This can take some “out of the box” thinking.

How can we help job seekers embrace their barriers? A starting place would be to reframe negatives as positives and provide supports that help clients build on these advantages. For example, language might be a barrier, but being fluent in another language can be beneficial in many different communities where clients or customers may also have language barriers.

Use the comment section to let us know how else you can reframe negatives.

Interested in learning more about Malcolm Gladwell or his book? Check out his recent TED Talk at http://www.ted.com/talks/malcolm_gladwell_the_unheard_story_of_david_and_goliath.html.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Even More Challenges for Internationally Trained Professionals

Earlier this year our team had the opportunity to meet several internationally trained professionals (ITPs), from a wide range of countries and representing a number of different professional occupations. All of these individuals had made the decision to immigrate to Canada and were committed to staying here, putting down roots, and raising their families. All, however, were frustrated by the many challenges in establishing their pre-immigration careers. These included challenges with regulatory bodies and professional associations, lack of recognition of previous experience and education, language barriers, and adjusting to Canadian workplace practices.

Many of the ITPs find themselves working in “survival jobs” and feeling quite underutilized . . . doctors washing dishes, engineers working as janitors, bankers/accountants driving cabs. Reitz (2011)[1] called this the “taxi driver syndrome,” estimating that this underutilization of immigrants is costing the Canadian economy $3 billion every year. We attract the world’s best and brightest, then leave them to navigate our complex system with little to no assistance – Lamontage (2003)[2] called this seduction and abandonment.

Despite the numerous challenges, all of these professionals had good things to say about the services they received from various community-based agencies. They’d had settlement assistance, been referred to language classes, taken workshops in Canadian workplace culture, and had support in developing their resumes, cover letters, and interview skills. They were very thankful for the assistance offered, most stating that the Career Development Practitioners (CDPs) who assisted them were very nice and helpful. However, these professionals also raised some issues that were somewhat concerning to us, especially given our role as educators.

These issues focused on two key elements.  First, it was felt that CDPs did not truly understand the complexities of the foreign credential recognition process, resulting in an inability to help ITPs navigate these systems or connect them with professionals who could offer assistance. Secondly, CDPs seemed to make rather bizarre recommendations around what work these highly skilled professionals should or could do – an economist, with a PhD, told to apply as a customer service rep in a bank; a structural engineer was told she should take a course in MS-Office, despite her having superior skills using the entire MS-Office suite.

ITPs face unique challenges and consequently need specialized solutions. We recommend CDPs develop their understanding of the foreign credential recognition process, foster strategic relationships with professional associations and certifying bodies, and learn from the successes of ITPs who’ve navigated to successful employment in their pre-landing sector. Further, CDPs should pause to explore the unique skills and qualifications ITPs bring; rather than assuming an engineer would need MS-Office training, discuss the advantages of participating in a Canadian education program and explore, with your client, what might “fit” best.

[1] Reitz, J. G. (2011). Taxi driver syndrome: Behind-the-scenes immigration changes are creating new problems on top of old ones. Retrieved from http://reviewcanada.ca/essays/2011/02/01/taxi-driver-syndrome/
[2] Lamontagne, F. (2003). Workers educated abroad: Seduction and abandonment. Food for Thought, 10. Retrieved from http://www.crccanada.org/crc/files/Communication_Strategy_No.10_Lamontagne718_2.pdf

Friday, August 2, 2013

Building a Workplace Culture That Embraces Diversity

I’ve spoken and written about the benefits of diversity for years and on six continents. However, as the adage goes, “we teach what we need to learn” and I’m definitely still learning. This year I’ve had the privilege of co-leading a research team to learn from internationally-trained professionals themselves about the challenges in the foreign credential recognition process in Canada. Their stories, without exception, illustrated how very far we still need to go to create Canadian workplaces that embrace diversity. I’ve also been facilitating employer training as part of two initiatives – the MAPLE 2.0 program and Welcoming  Communities. In both cases, I’ve listened to internationally trained skilled workers and professionals describe how they can’t get relevant work in their fields until they have “Canadian experience” – clearly a circular problem as they can’t get that experience without work in their fields!

I’ve also witnessed examples of individuals, though, who do get hired into positions closely related to their pre-immigration careers only to find themselves isolated, unappreciated, and clearly unwelcome by their colleagues and immediate supervisors. To build a diverse workforce, it’s not enough to have buy-in from the executive team and HR professionals within the organization – the average employee also needs to understand the value that diversity can bring. Too often orientation is focussed exclusively on the newcomers; however, to create a welcoming workplace it may be necessary to orient and train incumbent employees, building their cultural competencies and highlighting the synergies that result with working with colleagues who bring diverse perspectives, talents, and prior experiences to the project.
The SEED toolkit that we created for S.U.C.C.E.S.S. a few years ago has recently been updated. If you’re trying to build a workplace that embraces diversity, it’s a good place to start with links to virtual resources for recruitment, orientation, and inclusion of diverse workers, as well as a diversity champion’s guide, a topical backgrounder, and a diversity yearbook filled with activities and resources to shift your workplace culture so that diverse workers know they’re valued and are inspired to fully contribute.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Becoming a PhD

On June 11, 2013 I received official notice that I’d graduated from university with a PhD in Human and Organizational Systems, thus ending the doctoral journey that began in the fall of 2007. I hadn’t anticipated the journey to take this long but life has a funny way of forcing you to pause, often when it’s least convenient. The bumps in the road, however, are not the focus of this blog. Instead, I want to focus on the unexpected turns life can take and the untapped potential that can be missed when we define ourselves, or view our clients, from just one perspective.

When I was a little girl I dreamed of being a ballerina. I started dancing when I was 3 and never looked back. I performed in countless recitals, progressed through the Royal Academy of Dancing’s examination system, and entered a half day professional program that allowed me to attend high school half time while furthering my dancing career. Needless to say, high school was something I had to do, not something I wanted to do. None of the subjects were relevant for my chosen profession – ballerinas rarely have to calculate the square root of anything. Lack of relevance led to lack interest, then to lack of effort. In turn, this led to poor grades and the firm belief that I wasn’t smart. If ballet didn’t work out, I was in big trouble! Of course, like thousands of little girls with big dreams, ballet didn’t work out. Near the end of grade 12, the bloom had firmly fallen off the rose. For a wide variety of reasons, I knew ballet wasn’t a fit for me . . . it wasn’t an environment in which I could thrive and, therefore, be successful. But if I wasn’t “the dancer” then who was I? I’d rarely paid much attention in school, was lucky to graduate, had a belief that further education was completely out of the question, and had no clue of what to do next. At the time, the future seemed quite bleak.

Fast forward to today and I find myself among a small contingent of individuals with PhDs, am a leader in my field, and just finished some pivotal research around what factors help individuals maximize their career engagement. So, what changed? How was I able to re-write my belief system, create a new identity, and find hope? Honestly, I’m still not sure how it all happened but can recognize now, what I couldn’t then . . . whether I wanted it to or not, ballet had left an indelible mark on my soul. It taught me life lessons that helped me to grieve the loss of my future, my “self” as I knew me, and move on. Things like determination, dedication, perseverance, and passion . . . with a good dose of stubbornness and perfectionism thrown in for good measure.

I distinctly remember people encouraging me to frame a future attached to the “dancer” identity. As if, somehow, all those years would be wasted if I didn’t do something related to dance. “Why don’t you teach?” was a common question and I did give it a try, finding it really wasn’t for me. Others saw me from a different perspective – through my lacklustre academic performance, believing that I had sabotaged my future by not doing better in school.

My story, however, is not unique. There are countless young musicians, hockey players, dancers, and singers who dedicated their youth to pursuing their passion, not caring about academic performance, then finding themselves unable to “move up” and uncertain how to “move on.” As CDPs we may see these clients after, perhaps, becoming young parents, hopping from job to job, or dropping out of college. I’m reminded of the teenage mother who had once been on the fast track to Olympic stardom in figure skating and the young man who, after an injury sidelined an incredibly promising tennis career developed a problem with addiction; both of these people were defined by this new life, with their counsellors not realizing or recognizing the highly skilled individuals they still were, underneath their current circumstances. 

I realize our time with clients is often short but it is important to take the time to consider your clients’ stories – what their journeys to your office have entailed and the skills and personal strengths they’ve developed along the way. Focus beyond the skills developed in work or school to consider how the full range of life activities has influenced the individual sitting in front of you today.