At Full Potential

The Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers gives newcomers the skills they need

When Najma Shahab and his wife moved from Iran to Montreal, they were hopeful that their new beginning would mean a better life. The economics of their hometown had decreased to a point where it was no longer possible to find or keep a job. Shahab, who had worked as a civil engineer, says there were no projects for construction companies. And the couple wanted to provide a good place to live for their future children.

But when the couple arrived in Montreal, things remained difficult. After seeing two career counsellors, Shahab was told he would have to change his field. Despite having a master’s degree in his home country, he was unqualified to work as a civil engineer in Canada. And while he knew French and English, the French language skills he possessed were very different from those spoken in Quebec, which made finding a job a near impossibility.

“It was very disappointing for us,” says Shahab. “But then I heard about Edmonton and a program in the city that could help.”

That program was the Engineers’ and Technologists’ Integrated Training Program (ETIP), one of the bridging and training programs offered by the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers (EMCN), an agency that helps newcomers successfully settle in Edmonton.

“This is one of those programs that literally lifts families out of poverty”

The EMCN recognizes the challenges faced by engineers and accountants from other parts of the world, who want to find employment in Canada. Since certification and regulations for these professionals differ in other countries, their high levels of education and skills do not always translate to similar positions in their new home. This can leave newcomers struggling to make ends meet in low-paying jobs, which is not only unfortunate for the individual and his or her family, it’s unfortunate for our country. Even those who manage to get a related job in their field sometimes have difficulty keeping the job due to cultural differences in the workplace.

The EMCN recognized that the solution would be to fill in the gaps of those newcomers’ skills through bridging and training programs including ETIP, the Accountants’ Bridging Program (ABP) and the Payroll Professional Program.

For people like Shahab, it’s life-changing.

“If our applicants to a program are working prior to entering into a program like ours, they’re 99 per cent of the time holding down transitional, survival work,” says Laurie Hauer, Manager of Employment and Bridging and Training Programs at EMCN. “That ranges from any place like Walmart, to Mac’s, to cashiers and taxi drivers. Almost all are survival jobs, and usually they hold down more than one job.”

Before he was accepted into ETIP, Shahab sent out around 45 job applications and received no calls back from any employers. Finally, Shahab and his wife got jobs at Walmart. Shahab worked there until he started at ETIP.

The engineering program just celebrated its 20th anniversary, and has always been a partnership between the EMCN, the Alberta government, the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) and the Association of Science & Engineering Technology Professionals of Alberta (ASET). Students take classes through NAIT, and their tuition and living expenses for the 11-month course are covered through the Alberta government. More than 1800 people have graduated from the program.

Meanwhile, 12 years ago, the Accountants Bridging Program was introduced, which also sees the EMCN, NAIT and the Alberta government working together to provide a comprehensive program with 730 graduates to date.

So far, Shahab has learned some new technical applications of his skills – including information about products typically used in Canadian construction and how cold weather impacts urban design – and he’s learned about Canadian culture in the workplace.

Hauer says other parts of the world conduct business in completely different ways that may not mesh with expectations of employers in our country. “We teach them the ability to understand what’s going on in the culture: how we relate, how we behave, how we interact. And we define things like teamwork, how we manage conflicts, how to give and receive feedback,” says Hauer.

Over the course of 20 years, Hauer can only think of one case where a student wasn’t able to finish the course, and it was a special case related to the student’s health. It’s a testament to the program’s success. “Once a student begins, the commitment to the course is really high. It’s mostly because it’s filling all those gaps that they wouldn’t be able to fill otherwise,” says Hauer.

The government’s assistance – which covers tuition, books and living expenses – is also incredibly helpful because students can then focus on their course work rather than worrying about covering rent or groceries. “And in the end, the return on the government’s investment is exceptionally high.”

“When he bought his first car, he was excited. When he put a down payment on a house, he was thrilled. Those are the kinds of things that make a person feel like they’re actually settled and really becoming a part of the community”

In 2014, though, the Mennonite Centre received news that the provincial funding to the bridging and training programs would take a cut, which left them
with a tough decision, says executive director Erick Ambtman. The organization considered scaling back the program by about 10 per cent – which meant turning away at least 25 students – or letting one of their staff members go. Either way, they knew newcomers would suffer as a result of the decision. But it didn’t seem like there were other options, at least not until they received a call from Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF).

“The Mennonite Centre for Newcomers plays such a key role supporting newcomers that we knew there was a tremendous opportunity for ECF to step in to help fill the funding gap,” Craig Stumpf-Allen, ECF’s Director of Grants and Community Engagement says. “It was the Foundation’s 25th anniversary that year and we were looking to disburse 25 grants of $25,000 to various organizations to mark the milestone – the Mennonite Centre was a perfect fit.”

“This is one of those programs that literally lifts families out of poverty,” says Ambtman. And with that money, the organization could ensure that they continued helping many families whose income after taking the courses can double, triple, even quadruple. “The amount of times I’ve heard people tell me that the programs have changed their lives, I can’t even count that high,” says Hauer. One of these individuals, before entering the engineering program, had been working two part-time jobs, one at a liquor store, and the other at Walmart. He had a PhD and had been teaching at an educational institution in his home country, but entering the industry in Canada would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, on his own. He had a wife and small child, and was the sole caretaker of his family, which left him under a great deal of stress.

He considered taking the engineering program a huge risk, since he was unsure he’d have a job coming out of it. But Hauer begged him to give it a try. Upon graduating, Hauer says, he became the highest earning graduate of all the programs, securing a job as a project manager.

“When he bought his first car, he was excited. When he put a down payment on a house, he was thrilled. Those are the kinds of things that make a person feel like they’re actually settled and really becoming a part of the community,” says Hauer.

Hauer says many former students are empowered to give back to the community and get involved in ways they hadn’t felt comfortable trying in the past. One of the graduates, she says, co-ordinates the entire volunteer corps for the Nepalese tents at the Heritage Festival each year.

Shahab is nearing the end of his course, and for him, the knowledge he’s gained, particularly about how things work in Canadian work environments, has changed his outlook. “In my heart, I have something very good from this course. It made me more confident to apply for a job,” he says.