Foreign workers needed more than ever during recession, but employers must be more vigilant in face of layoff concerns, experts say
Rising unemployment and frequent news of layoffs during these times of economic strife might lead one to believe there are little or no jobs to be had, especially for foreigners on work permit.
But that’s just not so, according to Paul D. Swinwood, president of the Information and Communications Technology Council. He points out the much-lamented problem of declining science and engineering enrolment in schools and universities, coupled with the need for at least 15,000 IT workers each year, means employers may still have to look abroad to fill an estimated gap of 5,000 to 7,000 workers per year.
He adds that companies need to be more productive than ever to balance the downturn’s effects. “It’s not an issue in our sector … Irrespective of colour, race, or religion, we need to keep the best person, because we’re talking to a sector that’s totally focused on productivity, innovation and competency. In tough times, the performers stay.
“If you’re going to concentrate on keeping good old Joe instead of Ishwan, you’re decking the company’s future and that’s short-sighted. And I don’t know anyone who’s done that.”
Still, there’s no doubt some Canadian citizens and permanent residents may be wondering why it may seem priority is sometimes given to foreign workers and internationally educated professionals – or IEPs – when there was a total of 40,700 unemployed people, in all sectors, on the sidelines in Ottawa-Gatineau in July.
The problem is one the tech industry identified a while back: not all IT jobs are equal, and workers laid off after years at companies such as Nortel often don’t have up-to-date skill sets needed to immediately move to a new high-tech job in a different space.
“What I keep telling people when they call, lambasting me for not being able to find a job, is that companies are looking for competent people and if you’re competent to do the job, they’ll hire you,” says Mr. Swinwood.
For example, older tech workers were trained to deal with serial processing. That’s where one computer is used to perform a series of actions in linear fashion. But with the advent of parallel processing, which sees multiple computers working simultaneously to perform a single action, suddenly there’s been a fascinating shift towards hiring music graduates, accustomed to orchestrating hundreds of instruments to form a symphony, as computer programmers.
“Meanwhile, people who had had the old training of serial thought processing couldn’t grasp the concept, and became obsolete. That’s the challenge we’ve got in an industry where ‘new’ has a very short lifespan,” says Mr. Swinwood.
He adds the half-life of a new product is now as little as 18 months, which means workers need to spend at least 10 to 15 per cent of their own time reskilling themselves – or face becoming outdated.
That’s something ICTC is working on fixing, especially now that the federal government has pledged $3.5 billion to help Canadians and permanent residents upgrade their skills. The council is currently helping to implement a program that pays for more than 50 per cent of the required training for people who are still employed but want to keep their options open.
That still doesn’t solve the problem of the employer who needs to hire someone with the right competencies to deliver on a deadline, since a sixweek training course often isn’t up to snuff when it comes to a highly technical job. That’s where the internationally trained professional could help fill in the gaps, says Mr. Swinwood.
However, employers dealing with foreign workers on permit – whether they’re hiring, retaining, or even firing them – still contend with a host of legal issues, especially in tough times, says Yusra Siddiquee, an immigration lawyer with Ogilvy Renault LLP’s Toronto office.
“If you lay off a foreign worker solely because they’re foreign, you could actually open up a human rights challenge by the foreign worker,” says Ms. Siddiquee.
Paul Swinwood, president of ICTC.