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For temporary foreign workers, learning on the job

Recent reports show that Canada's labour market is an increasingly difficult puzzle to solve, one where in some areas, educational qualifications don't reflect what employers demand, while in others companies compete over workers.

That competition is not restricted to the highly skilled. For example, in provinces where temporary foreign workers can apply for permanent residence, businesses fear they can lose the investment they've made recruiting and flying the worker to the country – workers can more easily change employers once their residence application is approved. To retain them, companies invest in training programs that can lead to promotions and higher wages.

In the Yukon (unemployment rate 6 per cent), Northern Vision Development, a real estate company, is grappling with just how much employee learning is worth. For almost a year, it has offered on-the-job literacy and language training to the foreign workers staffing its two hotels: the Best Western Gold Rush Inn and the Coast High Country Inn. The majority of the hotel employees are not native English or French speakers and for many, their hotel position is one of two or more jobs they have. Through a program that is partly federally funded, John Robertson, the hotels' manager, and the national literacy organization Frontier College, have brought educators into the workplace. He explained why the company made the investment in education.

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Why did you choose to invest in this program?

Even though there is language training before they come to Canada, the skill levels are not there for what we need. If you're working with a government training group, the training is offered Monday to Friday, 9 to 5. Frontier was willing to develop training around our needs. Yukon has a big ESL program, but everyone has different abilities, and some work two full-time jobs – this way they can do half-hour at the end of their shift, or if someone has an evening cleaning shift they can do it before or after.

How many workers are involved?

Over a third are on a weekly schedule. We want to retain our employees, we want them to stay. There is a cost to continuously bringing in workers. When I first came, our turnover in certain departments like housekeeping was 100 per cent. Now, 50 to 75 per cent [of workers] have been here four years or more and this program will help further. We want to be attractive to foreign workers who've already been here [long enough to qualify for permanent residence.]

How much do you pay?

Housekeeper is $12 an hour, that's above minimum wage [$10.30]. A lot of the positions in the hotel are $12 to $14.

What kind of training has Frontier done with the workers?

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It's around our needs. They work with housekeeping staff on housekeeping inspection reports, for example. Our executive housekeeper is a Filipino immigrant. She started as an employee for housekeeping, her language skills are quite high, and with her, the tutor works on business letter writing skills. Our accountant is German – they work on professional language skills.

Will you run the program again?

It's one of those things that if it was double the cost, would we get the value out of the program? It's more value than the summer student work program. I don't know if we're eligible for funding again. If not, we may do it but with only one person between the two hotels.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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About the Author
Postsecondary Education Reporter

Simona Chiose covers postsecondary education for The Globe and Mail. She was previously the paper’s Education Editor, coordinating coverage of all aspects of education, from kindergarten to college and university. She has a PhD in political science from the University of Toronto. More


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