Bridging Programs Connect Newcomers and Employers in Canada
Like many newcomers to Canada, Malvika Mahajan immigrated to Toronto to find a better life for her family. She was anxious about restarting her career in a new country, despite having many years of experience as a supply chain specialist in India, including work for a large multinational corporation. To create a roadmap that would land her a professional role in Canada, Malvika joined the Supply Chain Management bridging program at Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in January 2020, eager to learn as much as possible about how her field operates in Canada and to build a new professional network. Shortly after graduating from the program in April 2020, Mahajan obtained a competitive position in a large public sector organization as a senior buyer. In her words, "the bridging program helped me make the transition into the Canadian workforce by focusing on what is required and needed by employers." She was able to more effectively communicate how her global skills and experience were relevant to the supply chain sector in Canada. Mahajan's advice for other newcomers is to "not hold back" and "be open to change."
Malvika Mahajan, Graduate of Supply Chain Bridging Program at Humber College
Humber College’s bridging programs provide internationally trained professionals insight into the up-to-date technical industry practices in their field and information about what Canadian employers expect. Newcomers are then able to communicate their international experience to Canadian employers so that a “lack of Canadian experience” is no longer perceived as a barrier. This provides newcomers with a renewed sense of confidence in their ability to land their dream job and regain their professional identity.
The Need for Bridging Programs
Unfortunately, many newcomers end up working “survival jobs” upon arrival in Canada. Not only does this come at a huge personal cost, but it also results in a considerable earnings gap relative to their Canadian-born counterparts. In fact, the immigrant earning gap has worsened even as immigrants have become significantly more educated than the Canadian-born population (RBC Economics, 2019). However, the immigrant wage gap is not just an issue for immigrants; it has a deeper economic impact on the country. According to a 2019 study conducted by the Royal Bank of Canada (2019), failing to address the immigrant wage gap may be costing Canada $50 billion, or 2.5 percent, of the GDP. This amount reflects the estimated cost of immigrants not being able to find work in their field or not reaching wage parity—even if employed in their field of expertise. This untapped economic potential creates a strong case for bringing immigrants up to employment and wage parity in Canada.
Bridging programs are specialized training programs for newcomers who have international education and experience. These programs are effective because they are focused, short in length, and tailored to the specific needs of new immigrants. Each program consists of courses focused on developing current in-demand technical knowledge, core soft skills, and knowledge of the Canadian workplace. Programs are offered in the evenings and on weekends so that those participating can maintain their current jobs. The whole infrastructure and design of the program is to support an individual to successfully land their first professional job in Canada.
Bridging programs are unique in that they complement and build upon participants’ existing knowledge rather than seeking to replace it. This is achieved by offering a set of tailored technical courses specific to each participant’s occupation and informed through consultation with local industry. For example, an internationally trained electrical engineer who recently moved to Canada from Iran may be well versed in universal engineering theory and practices, but lacking a working knowledge of the Canadian electrical code and standards. Humber’s Engineering Skills Enhancement bridging program ensures that participants gain necessary knowledge about the Canadian electrical code so that they may find a job with an engineering company in their new resident country.
Beyond technical training, bridging programs also offer individualized employment supports—each participant has access to an employment advisor and a job developer. The employment advisor provides career coaching support, while the job developer connects participants with hiring employers, often through hiring events organized specifically for those in the program. In addition, participants also have access to mentors through Humber College’s Community Outreach and Workforce Development Department.
Humber College delivers effective bridging programs as a result of a collaborative partnership and shared commitment between the Community Outreach and Workforce Development (COWD) department and the Faculty of Applied Sciences and Technology (FAST). COWD is a unique department established to support access to education, training, and employment for underrepresented groups in the community. FAST offers comprehensive programs in design, engineering technologies, and skilled trades. The bridging programs are possible due to provincial funding from the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development, secured by COWD. FAST possesses the expert knowledge needed to develop a suite of courses and is responsible for recruiting and managing program faculty as well as teaching the curriculum. All remaining details are taken care of by COWD. Working together in this manner expands the capacity of both COWD and FAST, and helps the college to achieve its strategic goals.
Humber College also connects with industry partners to facilitate strong bridging programs. Each program has an industry-led Program Advisory Committee to ensure that the curriculum is current and relevant by highlighting industry trends and giving participants sneak peeks into what is cutting edge in their sectors. We engage with professional associations such as the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers to provide one free year of membership to support engineering participants with licensure and employment. Humber also partners with the Project Management Institute to recognize 45 hours of our project management course toward a PMP certification. Industry partners also regularly participate in hiring events and panel sessions to provide career advice and labour market guidance to bridging program participants.
In October 2019, Humber College hosted a professional development opportunity for bridging program alumni to better prepare them for the ongoing digital transformation in the fields of engineering, IT, and supply chain management. The keynote address was delivered by Gerardo Amaya, Executive Digital Advisor at Microsoft. Workshops on topics such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, data sciences, digital analytics, and digital transformation were delivered by industry leaders from companies such as TELUS, Siemens, and LocalCoin, which have all hired graduates from Humber’s bridging programs. The workshops were followed by a panel of graduates who shared their insights about their jobs and how to be successful in the Canadian context. Those in attendance began discussing the next steps in their career trajectory and asked questions about the most relevant future training to stay ahead of the curve.
The strong partnerships we have built in the community play a crucial role in the success of the bridging programs. The benefits of these partnerships begin at the stage of student recruitment and continue through to employment. For example, Humber College partners with organizations such as YMCA Next Stop, which provides pre-arrival virtual services for prospective immigrants. This partnership allows us to provide visa-ready immigrants with information about bridging programs even before they have landed in Canada.
As part of the recruitment process, participants are required to demonstrate language proficiency, so Humber works closely with local language assessment centres like the YMCA and TCET. The college also works in collaboration with World Education Services to help newcomers assess their foreign education credentials to determine Canadian equivalency.
Humber’s partnerships with federally funded microloan organizations in the community (e.g., Windmill, Access Community Capital Fund, TCET) enable us to make referrals for participants in need of financial aid to cover the cost of the bridging program and/or their cost of living during the program. In addition, the college provides a bursary for those in financial need through a grant program from the provincial government.
We also partner with the Local Immigration Partnerships in Toronto to provide organizational support as well as funding—through Humber’s Community Partnership Fund—to member organizations seeking to promote access to education or employment for newcomers. Recent examples include referrals to legal aid services, housing and day care services, food services, education fairs, and employment events organized by the Toronto West Local Immigration Partnership.
Lastly, our partnership with the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC) enables us to provide bridging program participants with mentors through the Mentoring Partnership program. This program is delivered through COWD’s Community Employment Services, which also participates as a mentor partner with TRIEC. Humber College staff and faculty have been actively involved in mentoring newcomers over the last decade.
The positive impact of the bridging programs is broad and has had many ripple effects. Newcomers who participate in the program find work in their field within a shorter period of time after arriving in Canada. This is critical because the longer an individual is not working in their field, the further their skills and knowledge will become outdated, resulting in a higher probability of underemployment. Moreover, newcomers’ families benefit when program participants are employed in good positions in their field, paving the way for successful career paths.
The following statistics illustrate the impact of the bridging programs at Humber:
- The average starting salary for graduates is $54,000/year, with some graduates from the IT bridging programs securing jobs with salaries over $110,000.
- Last year alone, over 200 businesses hired from the college’s bridging programs.
- Ninety-five percent of graduates confirmed that the program helped them to be more job ready for employment in Canada.
The ultimate impact, however, is on the local economy. Employers are able to find the talent they require to fill real skills shortages. Many companies have returned multiple times to our hiring events because they find people to fill positions that match their needs. Newcomers bring global experience, a second language, relevant education, and an understanding of the Canadian context of their field as a result of their participation in bridging programs. This diversity provides different perspectives and helps to keep industries innovative and globally competitive. In addition, as these newcomers begin to settle successfully in Canada, they become socially and civically engaged in their communities, which makes our society more vibrant and resilient.
Recent Humber bridging program hiring event
What Makes Bridging Programs Work?
Robust partnerships with industry can have a positive impact beyond just employment outcomes. At Humber, these partnerships help to ensure that the curriculum is relevant to the needs of the local economy. Additionally, courses are led by faculty who are industry professionals. When employers are engaged partners, they become keen participants in wraparound supports as well. For instance, industry partners have offered to provide their expertise to graduating participants in the form of mock interview sessions and mentoring.
In addition, when newcomers immigrate, they leave behind their entire personal and professional network. Therefore, it is critical to provide supports that build participants’ networks in their new country—starting with their peers in the classroom. Digital tools such as Whatsapp and LinkedIn groups can be leveraged to facilitate a tight-knit cohort from which they can build.
Considerations for the Future
Given the challenges resulting from COVID-19, we have learned that we need to future-proof the bridging program model by enhancing delivery in a virtual environment. This will allow us the opportunity to serve existing students online, but also to serve a broader geographic region. As the job markets in cities and urban centers begin to saturate, bridge training could include a stronger focus on regional development. Closer collaboration with organizations like Professions North, municipal and provincial economic development departments, and chambers of commerce in lesser-populated areas, will support labour mobility toward regions where there is a noticeable skills shortage.
Humber College’s bridging programs can reach and serve many more newcomers like Mahajan, even in extraordinary times such as these. “COVID has not stopped essential connections from forming (in our cohort) and we have a peer group to go through this together,” said Mahajan. “The bridging team supported our own educational and employment progress so that we can succeed even when the external situation is difficult.”
The current pandemic is poised to be a crucial moment of change for education and our economy writ large. Therefore, we must ensure that the new approaches build on the assets within the community and focus on creating and scaling up innovative collaborations.
RBC Economics. (2019, September 18). Untapped potential: Canada needs to close its immigrant wage gap. https://thoughtleadership.rbc.com/untapped-potential-canada-needs-to-close-its-immigrant-wage-gap
Lead image: Panel at an employer engagement event for a bridging program
Geraldine Babcock is Director; Peter Paul is Manager, Immigrant Programs and Services; and Thomas Puthenmadhom is Outreach and Marketing Coordinator, Community Outreach and Workforce Development, at Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.