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Program helps new immigrants find their footing in Canadian tech sector

A program funded by the Ontario government called Integrated Work Experience Strategy (IWES) aims to help newcomers with technical experience continue their careers in Canada.

When Rohum Azarmgin immigrated to Canada in April, 2015, he wasn't fully prepared for the job hunt he would encounter. As an established and educated IT professional in Iran, he never had an issue finding work. But his new home was different, and he didn't fully understand how the recruitment process worked.

"I didn't have trouble landing interviews, but I wasn't able to secure a job," says Mr. Azarmgin. That's despite having both an IT degree and an MBA as well as 12 years' experience as a project manager in his home country. It was a tough time, he recalls, and focusing all his attention on finding a job meant burning through much of his savings.

Mr. Azarmgin's experience is one common to many immigrant tech workers, who come to Canada with expertise and education, but struggle to find their footing amid a hiring process and work environment vastly different from that in their home country. A program funded by the Ontario government called Integrated Work Experience Strategy (IWES) aims to help newcomers with technical experience like Mr. Azarmgin continue their careers in Canada.

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Offered by the not-for-profit Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), the program involves three weeks of in-class training in Scarborough, Ont., followed by three months of one-on-one coaching for a fee of $399 plus HST. Over 85 per cent of graduates of the IWES program have landed jobs within six months of completing the program, with average salaries starting at $50,000. Since the pilot in 2009, approximately 450 professionals have been through the program.

It's a win-win situation, says ICTC program manager Maureen Ford. "Information and communications technology professionals connect to the labour market, securing opportunities commensurate with their education and experience, and employers find skilled talent to meet their increasing digital skill needs."

The need for technical talent in Canada is massive, and many tech leaders say the shortage is impeding the growth of their firms. Andrea Gilbrook, director of talent programs at the tech organization Communitech in the Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., region, has witnessed it first-hand. According to Communitech's estimates, there are currently around 3,000 open positions in tech companies as well as tech positions in non-tech companies in the region. That number, she says, is expected to exceed 5,000 in five years.

"We need more students and new grads, but we also need more experienced hires," she says.

Many in the sector are hoping for an increased chance to bring in tech-savvy newcomers due to tightening immigration rules in the United States. Ms. Gilbrook sees the value in programs that help integrate skilled newcomers, and says Communitech has launched its own three-month pilot program targeted at skilled immigrants and career changers.

In the IWES program, guest speakers and visiting recruiters introduce the participants to the norms of Canadian workplace culture. Participants learn how to conduct job searches and interviews, and improve their resumes and social media presence. But it's the one-on-one coaching portion that many participants, like Mr. Azarmgin, find the most helpful.

After four months of struggling to find work in his field, he enrolled in the IWES program. He was paired with volunteer coach Chris Hamoen, formerly director of growth at Toronto-based software company Hubba. Mr. Hamoen since moved on to create his own startup and hopes to use the IWES program as a resource for talent.

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Together, they revised Mr. Azarmgin's resume, ran through mock interviews, and helped formulate a job search strategy. Mr. Azarmgin says having Mr. Hamoen on his team made him much better prepared for the job hunt.

By December, 2015, Mr. Azarmgin successfully landed a position in Halifax with NTT Data, a systems integration company. Today, he's moved on to a more senior position as a project manager at CGI.

"A lot of their [participants] end up at IWES when they're giving up almost," says Mr. Hamoen. "They're far into their time in Canada and aren't using their skills and are just finding a way to pay the bills."

It's not the experience that participants need help with, says Mr. Hamoen, but rather someone to guide them on things those native to Canada might take for granted – such as excluding family details (how many children you have) from your resume, how to end an e-mail appropriately and workplace etiquette. "If you have the tech understanding you can handle the job, it's just getting your foot in the door."

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