Taking it to the top

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A workshop on diversity attended by board members and senior managers has many of them reconsidering their views and approaches.

 

Burnaby Article 5Russell Garrett

Russell Garrett

 

Once or twice most weeks this year Russell Garrett has been invited in to meet with senior managers and board members at some of the Lower Mainland’s biggest companies and civic organizations. A career consultant and management professional, Garrett has a simple message about diversity that many of the people he speaks to find surprising.
Demographics are changing more rapidly than most people and organizations recognize, he tells the groups, which range up to several dozen people. Canada continues to welcome around 250,000 immigrants annually, with about 15% of them landing in B.C. Municipalities like Burnaby, where the organizations that Garrett speaks to are based, now count 50% or more of their residents as foreign-born, a head count that is increasing at the rate of about 2,000 a year, just in that city alone.
Large-scale immigration creates lots of complications, Garrett acknowledges, but there’s another complication that it’s helping to solve. The Canadian economy shed 400,000 jobs during the 2008 recession, but by 2010 it had gained 432,000 right back again. Projections are for another 550,000 new jobs by 2016, and one million by 2021, leading to a skills shortfall of 110,000, just in B.C. “Canadians aren’t having enough babies to solve this,” Garrett says. A big part of the solution lies with immigration.
Sometimes Garrett gets a little pushback. Are the projections realistic? Should Canada continue to welcome immigrants at such a rate?
But the stats are all but unassailable. People in that big bulge of baby boomers born during the 1950s and early 1960s did delay their retirements a touch because of the recession, but have now begun to exit the workforce en masse, and their departures will accelerate rapidly over the next few years. Employment gaps have been patched over with temporary foreign workers, but that approach has become unpopular and may well be stepped back. Then there are the other issues that an aging society causes, matters such as supporting a lot of retirees. In 2001, one in eight Canadians was over 65; by 2031 the proportion will be one in four. But newcomers are young, Garrett points out: Almost 90% of them are under 45 at age of immigration.
And for companies, filling jobs that would otherwise be unfillable is far from the only advantage to hiring immigrants, Garrett adds. A wide range of backgrounds and experience enhances innovation, creativity and productivity, leading to economic advantage. Trade and employer groups like the Canadian Chamber of Commerce warn that unless Canada targets diversity the national economy will be relegated to the slow lane.
Garrett goes on to outline some of the ways that workshop participants can take what they’ve heard back to their offices. Then he leaves them with a quiz, asking them to rate their organizations from one to 10 on a series of questions, eight of them altogether. Is there top-down communication supporting diversity and inclusions? Are their strategies supporting diversity orientation, training and promotion? Does the management team mirror the cultures of the community?
Garrett doesn’t ask participants to share their ratings, as to do so might well be embarrassing. It’s obvious from looking around the room that the last question especially will get low marks, since most of these senior managers are Canadian-born and white, as indeed is Garrett himself.
Yet the point is not that Canadian organizations may have been slow to embrace the country’s new reality, but that they are increasingly doing so now, Garrett says. The workshops he offers are part of the Welcoming Communities initiative of the Burnaby Intercultural Planning Table, and funding for the program runs out at the end of March. More than a dozen additional organizations requested the workshop and couldn’t be accommodated. There is widespread recognition that changes must be made, he believes.
Raj Sharma is among those who have participated in the workshop. As a senior manager with BC Hydro, he is one of the lucky ones who might not have felt his ears burning as he filled out Garrett’s quiz, as for three years in a row the utility company has been chosen one of Canada’s best employers for newcomers. “Yes, we are ahead of the curve,” Sharma says. “Seven years ago our then CEO, Bob Elton, challenged HR to hire a diverse workforce that reflected our customers and would position us to deal with the demographic risk across our workforce. Well, here we are in 2014, with a very talented, engaged and inclusive employee base that meets the expectations of our shareholders and customers.”
For many newcomers it’s a chicken and egg situation, Sharma says. They are generally well-trained and well-educated, but, of course, have little or no Canadian experience. BC Hydro is currently looking at how the gap can be bridged, since finding ways to engage such people is key to the company’s future. “That’s one of the things about the workshop that surprised us a little,” says Sharma, “It’s not a social justice issue, it’s an economic driver.