Retooling Internationally Trained Professionals

When scanning the classifieds, many job seekers have occasion to loathe two words that keep showing up: "experience required." But when your degree and your professional experience were acquired in another country, particularly a developing country, having your international credentials recognised by Canadian employers is an even bigger challenge. That's clearly a situation faced by many of Canada's highly skilled, internationally trained professionals. According to Statistics Canada's 2001 Census, the total unemployment rate of recent immigrants is nearly twice that of the Canadian-born population, although the former have made large gains in information technology occupations in recent years.

New programs designed to help highly skilled immigrants get a foot in the employment door in their respective field--or even closely related ones--are emerging. One such program targets internationally trained job seekers, providing them with the necessary education, soft skills, and industry insider knowledge to help them compete for jobs in biotechnology. The Vitesse Biotechnology Re-Skilling Program for Internationally Trained Professionals (VBP-ITP) was developed in 2002 with funding from the Government of Ontario's Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities' Access to Professions and Trades Unit.

Vitesse Re-Skilling Canada Inc., which runs the VBP-ITP program, is a not-for-profit organization created in 1996 by a partnership including the National Research Council (NRC), the University of Ottawa, and Carleton University. "We are really an education organization that aims to help people reenter the workforce in new sectors," explains Taras Hollyer, the company's manager of biotechnology and life sciences programs, adding that the organisation's original purpose was to retrain science (primarily biology) and engineering graduates as software engineers and developers for the previously booming--and recently bust--IT industry in the Ottawa area.

Vitesse works with postgraduate institutions, Hollyer says, to develop programs that enable mature graduates who already possess fundamental skills in science or technology to acquire new and "hot" skills for rapidly expanding industries. The organisation has retrained over 300 scientists and engineers, helping them to break into jobs in software engineering, photonics, biophotonics, DNA technology, bioinformatics, and microelectronics fields in the last 7 years. Two of its well-established and most popular programs, bioprocessing and bioinformatics, are funded by the Biotechnology Human Resource Council (BHRC) and Industry Canada(IC). Specifically, the bioprocessing program is funded by IC and BHRC, while the start-up of bioinformatics program is supported by Western Economic Development (WED), and is a partnership between the BC Institute of Technology (BCIT) and the Canadian Bioinformatics Resource (CBR) of the NRC. The bioinformatics program, which next runs in Vancouver from 10 to 12 November, was designed to provide additional industry-targeted training for people already working in bioinformatics companies. Such programs are "very specific to the development and maturity of a particular sector," explains Hollyer.

Vitesse's VBP-ITP is specifically focussed on bridging the gap for internationally trained professionals--particularly biologists--by addressing issues of English language skills, interpretation of foreign academic credentials, and deficits in understanding Canada's workplace culture, Hollyer tells Next Wave Canada. Applicants are carefully selected based on their prior experience and education, and their CVs are presented to companies that might be interested in a particular skill set. Once given the nod by a company, the applicant is admitted to the program, and Vitesse works with the company and an academic advisor to "select university courses for the student based on their prior learning as well as industry needs." That way VBP-ITP involves new individualized learning, he emphasises, and "not just restamping old credentials." Last year, 18 internationally trained professionals participated in the program; this year, there are 11.

In addition to taking courses relevant to the prospective job, the student also completes a 3- to 4-month work placement with the company. At this stage, the company has not yet formally agreed to hire the student but is able to use the placement to assess the student's skills and capabilities while at the same time providing the student with valuable work experience.

Dr. Jenny Phipps, chief scientific officer at PharmaGap, a proteomics biotech company and NRC spinoff based in Ottawa, has been impressed by the quality of the CVs she has seen thus far. PharmaGap has trained one VBP-ITP participant and expects two more to start in January. Phipps says that VBP-ITP is an important program for start-up biotech companies to be involved in, particularly if they have a need for human resources in a specific area. VBP-ITP helps reorient job seekers to these niche areas, such as cell culture and biochemistry in PharmaGap's case. "In terms of our company, where we have a lot of new apparatus, internationally trained professionals have usually been cut off from their studies or employment for some time and need reorientation to the workplace."

It's a win-win situation for both parties, says Hollyer. "Even if the company decides in the end not to hire this person," he says, "at least the job seeker will have gained relevant Canadian work experience," as well as receive Canadian university-credit training through coursework, certified both by Vitesse and the participating academic institution.

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