Internationally Educated Engineers
Engineers who come to Canada from overseas have a great deal to offer consulting engineering companies, but firms have to be prepared to provide soft skills training and support.
From the March-April 2016 print edition, page 30.
Before the middle of the next decade, according to Statistics Canada research, almost all labour force growth will come from immigration. The Canadian-born workforce is in decline as the population ages and many workers are retiring. Many employers are already experiencing a shortage of skilled people, including engineers.
Consulting engineering companies that hire internationally educated professionals stand to benefit in various ways, besides filling a gap in their staffing needs. These employees can increase the firm’s competitiveness in the global market by contributing their skills, knowledge and professional experience. They open the business to international ideas and opportunities.
They may help the firm develop new markets. They may speak several languages and have knowledge of cultures that can help the firm develop new local and global markets. They can help to make the firm more effective. They provide fresh perspectives, and new and more effective ways of doing business. Their creative and critical thinking can help boost innovation.
They may also be able to link the firm to other prospective employees and connect its business to important national or international organizations.
Firms that understand the benefits of internationally educated engineers and who hire them may nevertheless experience issues. Most of these issues are related to language and culture.
Importance of soft skills
Employees from other cultures often have strong technical skills. However, they also often lack strong soft skills such as good speaking, listening and other English language communication skills. Sometimes they are unable to write or speak effectively to inform, persuade, clarify or make a request.
They may not be able to contribute effectively during meetings, develop a North American presentation style, or carry on small talk at networking and other events.
A lack of strong communication and other soft skills, including teamwork, negotiation, leadership and empathy, can lead to conflicts with co-workers, colleagues and clients.
In addition, employees who are misunderstood by those with whom they interact may feel frustrated. Managers may become frustrated, too, because of co-workers’ and clients’ complaints that their expectations have not been met. For instance, the manager may have to spend time editing a report that has missing information or unintelligible language.
In Canada, a great deal of emphasis is placed on soft skills and this increases with an engineer’s level of responsibility. Communication skills include not just language skills, but also non-verbal and body language. This is where many internationally educated engineers may have problems.
Non-verbal and body language account for up to 90 per cent of the spoken message. They include eye movements, facial expressions, gestures, posture, tone of voice, pitch, volume and intonation (the rising and falling of the voice). Individuals may fail to maintain eye contact, may not have a warm, friendly tone of voice, or may use other body and non-verbal language that is inappropriate in certain situations.
Help is at hand
In order to help their internationally trained engineers adapt to the business and professional environment in Canada, firms have a number of options
• Occupation Specific Language Training (OSLT) programs. In Ontario, for example, 15 colleges offer one or more OSLT programs in five different sectors: business, health sciences, human services, education, skilled trades, and technology, which includes engineering. The OSLT technology programs are offered at three colleges in the Greater Toronto Area (Seneca (Markham), Humber (Brampton) and Sheridan (Mississauga and Oakville), as well as in London, Barrie and Ottawa. The courses are free and last 180 hours. Applicants must be permanent residents or convention refugees, have training or experience in one of the five sectors and have upper- intermediate to advanced levels of English proficiency.
• University Language Training programs. Ryerson University in Toronto offers a workplace communication course that includes four 39-hour courses. The University of Toronto offers 10-week English language courses, including Canadian Workplace Culture & Communication.
In Western Canada, the University of British Columbia has an English communications course and the Universities of Alberta and Calgary offer conversation and writing courses. Through the English Language part-time program at the University of Saskatchewan, internationally-trained engineers can take intermediate and advanced level language skills courses.The University of Winnipeg has free part-time 12-week English for Engineering Professionals, as well as Business and IT Professionals courses. Applicants must have advanced levels of English.
• Language Trainer/Tutor. A business English trainer can be hired to come in to the firm’s office and spend an hour or more with a group of employees on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. If just one employee needs to improve her workplace communication skills, the firm might hire a private tutor to provide training on site during the day or after hours.
Another benefit of a tutor/trainer is that they can customize the “course” according to the employees’ needs.
• LINC Home Study. The firm can have the employee register in a government-funded Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) Home Study program. The Centre for Education & Training (CET) will evaluate their level of English proficiency and assign an instructor — when one is available — to the student. This is an online self-study program, free to all language learners provided they are not Canadian citizens. It is offered in Ontario and a few other provinces. It does take time to complete each level, as the instructor spends only 30 minutes each week with the student.
Costs and other issues
The best solution for the employer depends on:
» how much money the firm is willing to spend on language/communications skills training;
» the amount of non-billable hours they are prepared to set aside for the individual’s training;
» the number of people who need training; and
» the individuals themselves (their level of proficiency and motivation).
The OSLT programs, while free, do not include the cost of textbooks, which can be quite high. Ryerson’s Workplace Communication in Canada program, which has an in-class and an on-line curriculum, costs $2,386. Part-time spoken and writing courses at the University of Saskatchewan cost $325.
And, will the employer pay for the employee’s transportation to and from the college or university? English language trainers themselves may expect to be compensated for travel, although many can use Skype or video-conferencing.
If an employee’s proficiency in English does not meet a program’s requirements he will not be eligible. Once admitted, he will be expected to keep up with the curriculum and assignments and attend classes regularly.
Internationally educated professionals have much to contribute to Canadian engineering. Training in communication and soft skills will help them to achieve true success for themselves and their employing companies. cce
Marjorie Friesen, MBA, is a TESL-certified English instructor based in Toronto. She is also the principal of Improve Your Workplace English, www.ImproveYourWorkplaceEnglish.com.