‘Soft Skills’: A Major Barrier to Retaining Work

by Danica Samuel in Toronto 

Focusing on developing immigrants’ soft skills may be one solution to increasing the hiring and retention of newcomers in the workplace. 

This was just one of several strategies to come out of discussions on the first day of the 18th National Metropolis Conference at the Westin Harbour Castle hotel in Toronto this past week. 

“Twenty-two per cent of employers said soft skills is the reason that newcomers are not able to retain work,” explained Nadil Jamil, policy strategist for Peel Newcomer Strategy Group, during a workshop titled “Multi-Sectoral Collaboration: Towards Innovative Strategies for the Employment Retention of Newcomers”. “This was also the second highest reason we found in our research.” 

Jamil said the group’s 2015 employment survey found that even if newcomers are able to secure employment, job retention continues to be a problem due to a lack of soft skills. 

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″][T]he varying definitions [of soft skills] are where the problem ultimately lies.[/quote]

“What does ‘soft skills’ mean?” she asked audience members. Skills like the comprehension of hierarchy and simple workplace courtesy were some of the responses. Jamil concluded that the varying definitions are where the problem ultimately lies. 

She emphasized that it’s also very important to ask, “How can soft skills for newcomers be improved without imposing on specific cultural norms?” 

Who is the ‘right fit’? 

The workshop went on to explore the perceptions of newcomers and the cultural norms of employers. 

“Why aren’t immigrants considered integral when it comes to the hiring process?” asked Sangeeta Subramanian, senior manager in workplace development for British Columbia’s Immigration Employment Council (IEC). 

She addressed the idea of a ‘right-fit’ and described it through an employer’s lens, which often means hiring someone who reflects their own image.

She went on to say that sustaining collaborative partnerships with recruiters working with immigrants specifically can help attract, hire, and retain them in the labour markets. 

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″][S]trategically challenging the language employers use when seeking new hires will lead them into changing their perspective.[/quote]

Workshop panellist, Rodel Imbarlina-Ramos, who is the manager of employer relations at the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC), agreed that strategically challenging the language employers use when seeking new hires will lead them into changing their perspective. 

Ramos said that it’s a matter of pitching new concepts to employers, without specifically mentioning words that may bring attention to race, diversity and newcomer inclusion. 

“All of a sudden we have changed the language by taking the cultural component out so it isn’t about whether someone is a student, a new grad or new to the workplace, nor is it about if an individual is new to Canada, it’s about trying to get the most out of people in the workplace.” 

Anita Sampson Binder, vice-president of ARES Staffing Solutions, calls this employer language tactic “soft educating.” 

“We don’t want to nail employers that we are trying to have on board. We want to encourage them to take the right steps forward in including immigrants and racialized people,” she explained during another workshop titled “Employer Strategies to Support Immigrant Employment”, which discussed the integration of immigrants in the workplace and employers’ perception of ‘foreign’ faces. 

Governments to play a role also 

Director of the Equity, Diversity and Human Rights Office, Uzma Shakir, said getting employers and government officials to listen is the frustrating part. 

“Twenty-seven years later, and I’m still talking about this,” she stated. 

Shakir explained that government bodies, like the City of Toronto, are just as responsible as any other employer for the hiring of newcomers. 

Her four-step module is just a start in creating a better environment for immigrants, racialized groups, aboriginals and people with disabilities. 

It includes the implementation of an employment equity policy, the Accessibility Of Ontarians with Disability Act (AODA), a human rights and anti-harassment/discrimination policy and legislation to ‘expand’ protection to all residents with or without documentation and the Toronto Newcomer Strategy, which applies a newcomer lens to all activities. 

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]“We’re trying to steer away from blaming the newcomer and focus on how we can engage employers …”[/quote]

Newcomers not to blame

Julia Ramirez, project coordinator of the Local Immigration Partnership (LIP) of Fredericton, introduced a strategy not only for employers and policy makers, but for immigrants and citizens as well. 

Her Newcomer Service Map is a new strategy that the LIP of Fredericton plans on using to integrate the community’s feedback and knowledge to facilitate immigration settlement. 

“The idea is to enhance the collaboration and partnership around community members.”  

Ramirez also suggested that there needs to be a change in the employers’ perception of skilled immigrant workers. 

“It’s not that [immigrants or newcomers don’t] want to do the work,” explained Ramirez. “It’s that the company doesn’t want to receive them.” 

“We’re trying to steer away from blaming the newcomer and focus on how we can engage employers in a way that solves this ongoing problem,” Jamil added. 

Results of Peel region’s soft skills research study will be released in May 2016 and the LIP of Fredericton’s Newcomer Service Map will launch later this month.

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