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Soft skills is where it’s at
A newcomer to Canada was sharing a story on a radio show the other day. He talked about how in his home country if someone bumps into you on the sidewalk you react by calling the person names and generally try to demonstrate your displeasure, even if you don’t really mean it. The man talked about coming to Canada and walking on the sidewalk when another man bumped into him. The newcomer braced himself for a flurry of insults. Instead he heard, “I’m so sorry!” That was the first cultural difference the man identified after moving to the country.
And what does this have to do with getting a job? Well, so-called cultural differences are what’s often considered soft skills in the world of employment. And in Canada, soft skills are also often referred to as ... employability skills. In other words, these are the skills that can tip the scale in favour of one qualified candidate over another – the one who is able to make small talk, has good presentation skills and understands the cultural intricacies of Canadian workplace culture.
What are soft skills exactly?
Settlement.Org points out that “[s]omeone who has these [soft] skills will be able to learn and grow in a job. These people can get along with their co-workers and are a long-term asset for the organization.” Five soft skills are identified:
- Problem solving
- Positive attitudes and behaviours
- Working with others
Probably the biggest struggle for newcomers to Canada is the language barrier. In the article Immigration Applications to Canada Drop in Asian Countries, journalist Nicholas Keung writes about the significant decrease of people immigrating from countries like China or India since 2006. “One issue here is language proficiency. All of the data says the primary reason why foreign-trained professionals are not hired in Canada is language proficiency, which is an indicator of people’s soft social skills” says Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney, who is quoted in the article. “Even if they are book smart about the job, but if they don’t understand the cultural context, that can be a barrier.”
You need a good grasp of the language (English or French) to be able not only to understand but to be able to be understood. And not only that. You need to be able to get the small talk, figure out the idioms, get the jokes. This may not seem like a big deal but it is — if you take offence to something that is simply a Canadian saying or if you take it too literally, for example, you might give the impression of being aggressive or moody. Imagine taking literally the saying “I’m just trying to pull your leg”.
The former publisher of Canadian Immigrant magazine, Nick Noorani, talks about nine soft skills no immigrant should be without, and by the time he gets to point number four (small talk) in his list, he admits that almost all of the skills are related to communication. Besides having a generally good command of the language, Noorani, talks about being able to do the following:
Understand local language skills – this means understanding local phrases and business jargon.
Present well – No, not how to work PowerPoint (although that’s useful too) but rather how to present yourself in meetings with colleagues or potential employers. In an interview we conducted here at poss.ca, on walking into the room, one candidate immediately asked how much we were going to pay him. He forgot to introduce himself before he asked that.
Make small talk – This is the so-called water cooler chat (oh, and if you’re not sure – it doesn’t have to happen around the water cooler … if there isn’t a water cooler in your workplace, don’t fret). It’s where you exchange pleasantries with your co-workers and sometimes your boss. There are a number of topics to avoid, however, such as religion, sometimes politics, sex. You know, all the things that get people in trouble in life anyway.
Show leadership and initiative – Believe in yourself and don’t be afraid to share your ideas and solutions. Some immigrants may feel unsure of themselves because they have an accent or they just have general feelings of not quite fitting in. By taking initiative and staying visible you may just feel like you fit in better.
Learn conflict resolution and negotiation – Keep your emotions at home. It’s that simple. Learn how to apologize and compromise.
Accept constructive criticism – Noorani writes, “Constructive criticism is part of any learning curve. To accept criticism, understand that we are not perfect and learning is a continuous process, at work and in life.”
Show flexibility – This is your ability to adapt to a changing work environment. Just because you don’t know how to work a certain computer program it doesn’t mean that you can’t learn it. In this world and culture, constant evolving and adapting equals valuable employment skills.
Know business etiquette – Noorani writes, “Workplace customs and practices may be different in Canada than your homeland. Something as simple as calling your boss by his or her first name may seem odd to you, but it’s normal practice here.”
Settlement.Org talks about Canadian experience as one of the elements of getting employment in this country. It can mean a lot of things, for example, “It can mean that an employer doesn't know how to evaluate the work you did outside of Canada with the way it is done here. It can also mean that an employer doesn't think you'll fit into their corporate culture.” If it sounds a little discriminatory it’s because it is — at the same time, as the Settlement.Org article explains, “Any new employee needs time to 'learn the ropes' (that is, learn how things work). Organizations have rules, policies and common practices that take you time to learn. When you come from a different country, these practices are even more unknown. For instance, health and safety standards may be different and unless you are aware of them, mistakes could be very costly.”
You can actually gain some valuable Canadian experience by volunteering, for example. Through volunteering you get to practise the language, get to know work culture, gain valuable experience and references as well as make contacts which may be useful in your future job search. Check Volunteer Toronto to see what opportunities may be available. Working in Canada suggests a few other avenues such as taking advantage of bridging programs for internationally trained professionals. These programs vary depending on the area of training but they’re designed to some of the following:
- Assess education and skills
- Provide clinical or workplace experience
- Deliver skills training or targeted academic training
- Prepare participants for a license or certification examination
- Give occupation-related language training
Programs may also offer individual learning plans to identify any added training needed. Check if you’re eligible for the Ontario Bridging Participant Assistance Program. Look at the Citizenship and Immigration site too for more resources and programs available to newcomers.
Finally, treat your everyday life in Canada as an opportunity to learn — subscribe to a newspaper and read the free weeklies to keep up-to-date with what’s happening in the country around you. Watch the news. Talk to other new Canadians about their experience. And talk to people outside of your community — this will help you practise your language skills and learn how to communicate better.
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