Community involvement as a means to get a professional job in Canada

A New Year and new resolutions: many newcomers to Canada dream that this is the year when they will get their first Canadian job…or a job that truly utilizes their pre-landing skills, education and experience…will it?

I want to share one tool (community involvement) that has been preached many times by employment counselors and settlement workers, but it is sadly received with skepticism and disdain by many newcomers….at least at the beginning.

“I have no time to volunteer, I need a job”, “I am involved in the community, “my” (insert here: Philippine, Indian, Chinese, Latino, etc.) community” or “How am I supposed to network if I am new to Canada? I don’t know anybody here!” These and similar complaints are many times voiced (and many others held hidden) by newcomers to Canada who feel that being asked to network, volunteer or become involved with the community as a whole is not a priority for them, or is not achievable at this time.

Nelo (name changed) immigrated to Canada from the Philippines in January 2012. He had tried “everything” (from sending countless of online applications to visiting companies in person), he even took a very expensive technical course related to his background in civil engineering, but nothing seemed to help. He became very depressed and started thinking in going back to his home country. He came to our workshops at Skills Connect, but he was very skeptical about networking. However, he never mentioned that to me, his counsellor. “I don’t know how to approach strangers” he thought to himself, “I don’t want to bother people with my problems or asking for favours”. After some encouragement, he decided to try networking. He started in his church and talked to others in the congregation. He offered to volunteer for a contact he got from his pastor and at one point; he was conflicted by the offer of not one, but two professional jobs! After some thinking, Nelo took the job most convenient for his family, and now he shares his experience with others: “Networking actually works!“ he wrote in an email to me.

Nelo’s case is not uncommon. Networking accounts for up to 48% (average for all occupations) of success in job search.

Veronica (not her real name) from Ecuador, became involved in the Canadian community as a whole from the beginning: she decided this was the best way to practice and improve her English skills, learn about Canadian culture and soft skills, and meet new friends. So while getting an entry-level job as a kitchen helper at a Mexican restaurant, she continued volunteering and starting new projects such as pot-lucks, neighbourhood meetings to discuss safety issues, participated in a community garden and attended to many community events. Veronica shared that it wasn’t always easy. Some of her projects failed, and she experienced some rejections. She didn’t understand all the events or didn’t share all the celebrations, but she learned a lot and she met many great friends. The experience also showed her that Canada has many hidden gems, such as non-traditional job titles and unpublicized professional jobs (jobs that you will only know by word of mouth or networking).

Nelo and Veronica’s experiences are not unique. Community involved is wide spread in Canada and it makes the foundation of Canadian culture. You may find that most Canadians volunteer in the community (many do this for years and continue even when they have well-paid full-time jobs and families). Canadians are also very social and open, even when it may not seem that way when you come from places where people seem to be friendlier and socially oriented.

Where and how to start? First, by challenging some of the big myths about networking, community involvement and volunteering:

  1. They don’t necessarily take too much of your time, and they are definitely NOT a waste of time, but an investment in your future.
  2. Community involvement doesn’t mean “your” cultural community. It means the place where you live (your neighbourhood, your town, your city) and includes all cultural backgrounds
  3. Canadians are not closed: many are curious and very nice and warm when you approach them with positive attitude and willingness to help
  4. Networking doesn’t mean telling everybody that you need a job. It means reciprocity and making meaningful and two-way connections, following up and caring for people, not just for a job lead
  5. Community involvement is not the same as volunteering. Volunteering is usually a formal “contract” between you and a non-profit organization that will provide orientation, training, references and sometimes other benefits in exchange for a specific job description and amount of hours you commit to expend with their projects. Being involved with the community may mean attending to church/temple/mesquite, joining a local club, becoming part of the school PAC or attending their meetings, attending the local library and recreational centre events, etc. You may not get a referral from these things, but you will be visible, learn and meet new people.

You can start by joining the local library and getting a free card. Libraries hold many events and free workshops with great information about the Canadian Labour Market and how to search for jobs. They also have many books, CDs and DVDs that will allow you to practice your English skills for free. The next step may be to find an spiritual/religious centre where you feel comfortable and welcomed, churches and temples are great sources for support, community information and networking opportunities, even for those who may not be overtly oriented to religious practice. Many also offer community involvement and volunteering opportunities. Visit your local Recreational Centre and Settlement services agency. Recreational centres offer a variety of workshops and community events, usually in more than one language. Settlement agencies are a great way to start your life in Canada, as they offer information, workshops and referrals in things like financial literacy (family budgeting, the Canadian banking system, etc.), health and safety (how to access the services and how to prepare for emergencies and disasters in your area), nutrition, school for your children, family counseling, etc. And don’t forget your neighbours and the small businesses around you. Take advantage of festivities to show up and say hello, introduce yourself, share a card or ethnic food or just talk about your common concerns around the city services, etc.  But remember: always be positive, never complain, and use every opportunity to observe and learn something new. Treasure every curious response, you’ll have an opportunity to understand or share it later.

How else can you benefit from being involved with the community, network and volunteer?

You will find many benefits: from staying healthy (mentally and physically) to being able to learn new things and meet people who may provide you with job leads, new career opportunities or new lifestyles opportunities that you never imagined existed.

Stay tuned for the next article on how to research and make sense of labour market information.

This article was published in the Canadian Immigrant magazine both print and online verision on January 2013

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