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It is evident that the Canadian labour market needs immigrants. The baby boomer generation is rapidly retiring, and the country’s birth rate has not been high enough for decades to replace them. This has resulted in skills gaps in the market. A recent study by McKinsey Global found that 87 per cent of executives’ report skills gaps in their workforce or expect them in the next few years.
The good news: the immigrant talent Canada needs to begin to narrow those gaps is already here. Currently, almost half of people living in the Greater Toronto Area, and around a quarter of the Canadian population are immigrants, many of whom are underemployed. Also, with the federal government recently announcing higher immigration targets for the next three years, the labour pool of available talent will increase. As we move towards a post-pandemic recovery, immigrants will play a critical role in rebuilding the economy, by boosting the workforce and driving economic growth as taxpayers, consumers, and entrepreneurs.

We have a strong tradition of welcoming newcomers, yet we continue to struggle in fully realizing immigrant talent potential within the workplace. Canada’s track record for integrating immigrants into the labour market shows that there is room for improvement.

Now more than ever, organizations need to ensure that they are ready to leverage the immigrant talent in the labour market. Public institutions are no exception. Public sector employers will continue to have greater baby boomer retirement rates, yet the services required by citizens will not decrease. From where will the public sector draw its workforce? Likely from the same sources as everyone else – immigrant talent.

What can public sector organizations do?

Building an immigrant-inclusive workplace is a marathon, not a sprint. Like a marathon, becoming immigrant-inclusive requires organizations to be strategic and intentional in preparing, training, and embarking on the diversity, equity, and inclusion journey. For inclusion to be part of the fabric of an organization, one needs to plan, communicate, execute, and then repeat. Gone are the days that a half-day workshop will suffice. The key is to not view diversity, equity, and inclusion as a stand-alone HR task, rather to embed it within all of an organization’s operational practices, including talent management.

Baseline: Collect the data

To inform the design and development of immigrant inclusion strategies, you first need the data to create a baseline to see how diverse your workforce is, as well as to be able to level-set how immigrant employees experience your organization.  Inclusion 2.0 data collection includes recognizing intersectionality, as racialized and women immigrants are not always represented equally nor have the same experiences. It may be the case that you already have collected the data in hiring, but not analysed it. And, often you can glean information from data that you already have, like engagement surveys as to how inclusive employees believe your organization to be. Data collection is also a critical part of securing buy-in for continuing your inclusion work; the evaluation of pilot initiatives and their impact will help make the case to continue to the next mile of the marathon.

Layering inclusion into talent management: start with hiring practices

Immigrants are under-represented in the public sector: in 2017, just 16% of public administration workers were immigrants – this is lower than most other major sectors. Building an immigrant-inclusive workplace starts with having representation of the diversity that exists in the public. The mechanisms by which organizations hire have a pivotal impact on their ability to attract diverse talent. It is important to take a step back and evaluate your organizations’ hiring processes, from how the job posting is written, to where it is posted, to the biases that are inherent within interview questions and what it means to answer them successfully, to the need to focus on evaluating competencies needed for the role vs. exclusively focusing on Canadian experience and education. It is not about changing standards and expectations, rather it is about ensuring that success for immigrant talent is not inherently disadvantaged because the practices are based on implicit rules that are not obvious if they are not Canada-born. Also, if the mandate is to do only internal postings, then representation is inherently limited as the pool of eligible candidates may not fully represent the diversity of the larger external talent pool.

Mine your own pool: find your hidden gems

For those organizations that already have a representative immigrant talent pool within workforce, there is the opportunity to dig deeper. The McKinsey study found that leaders recognized their organizations’ skills gap, yet they often lacked the data as to whether their own workforces had the skills for which they were looking. Leaders often hire for a particular set of competencies and may not remember or realise that the employee has a variety of other competencies that could be harnessed. This is particularly true for immigrants who often will take a role that is not at the level at which they were in their home country; hence the challenge of under-employment. Internal job fairs, mentorship, or sponsorship programs can support the career progression of immigrants and bridge gaps within the organization.

For every executive: Be the change

In a report that TRIEC will release next month, we look at the critical role executives have in fostering an inclusive work culture. For executives leading an immigrant-inclusive organization, they start by examining their own biases and openly champion their immigrant colleagues. Senior leadership sets the expectations and creates a framework within which middle managers then feel empowered and encouraged to be inclusive.

Middle managers are less likely to prioritise inclusion, unless they see their executives doing the same. Yet, it is middle managers who make many of the day-to-day decisions on who gets hired and promoted, so they need to be empowered to take an inclusive approach. Giving middle managers the time and resources to grow as inclusive team leaders can make all the difference. Most importantly, a system by which inclusive behaviour is recognized, rewarded, and lauded is important.

Pre-pandemic and post-, the Canada of today looks different from the Canada of the past. Our country’s future has to reflect the reality of who is here and who is coming. Then we must ensure that we have removed barriers and are fostering a system that allows immigrant employees to realise their full potential. The public sector should be reflective of the general public and be the beacon for inclusion as a representation of Canada society.

Adwoa K. Buahene has spent the last 20 years in leadership positions, focusing on organizational and departmental strategy as well as revenue generation. Buahene co-founded and managed for 12 years a boutique leadership consulting and training company that worked with private sector and not-for-profit organizations, as well as all levels of government. Most recently, she served as Vice President, Donor andCommunity Partnerships at Habitat for Humanity GTA. Her prior roles in business development and operations allowed her to work in Munich, Toronto, Paris,Bucharest, and Mumbai. She holds a Master of Arts in Analytic Philosophy fromDalhousie University.