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The Immigrant Imperative: View from an Employer

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Gordon Nixon
President & CEO
RBC Financial Group
TRIEC Conference
Toronto, Ontario

June 21, 2005

Good morning.

I have been invited to a number of events lately related to immigration, and almost without exception, the very best of them have Dominic's name attached. Thank you, Dominic, for your leadership and kind introduction.

And congratulations to Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC) on the important work you are doing, and especially on the launch of your new employer strategy and website today.

I am honoured to be here representing the corporate community and, more specifically, as a current and prospective employer of immigrants to Toronto and Canada.

While I'm not an immigrant, I'm not a native of Toronto either. I was born and raised in Montreal, and moved here in 1979. But I count myself fortunate to live in a city that so clearly shows the potential that can be unleashed by multi-culturalism.

Right now, we may be the only city in the country that can claim a "visible majority" rather than "visible minorities."

I know that the terms "visible minority" and "immigrants" are often used incorrectly as synonyms. But demographically speaking, the reality in Toronto is that immigrants are visible minorities. Almost one out of every three Torontonians is a visible minority, and our future growth is expected to come largely from immigrants who are visible minorities.

My topic this morning is "The Immigrant Imperative," and I have one key message. We must not only attract, but also improve how well we integrate new immigrants into our communities, our workforce and our economy.

Immigration has historically been critical to Canada's growth, yet there has seldom been a time in Canada's history where immigration has been so important. In the next twenty years, we stand to gain more— or lose more— depending on how we handle immigration over the next few years.

Canada's standard of living has lagged behind that of the United States for the last 25 years. Our competitive advantage is no longer driven by the resource industry, or by capital assets like plants, equipment and machinery. It is being driven by our ability to tap human capital so we can develop technology, improve productivity and develop creatively.

But Canada is a small nation. Our national birth rate just hit an historic low, and our workforce is aging. Clearly, we are going to have to import talented people to make up the gap, not just for labour intensive jobs, but for all levels. The global war for talent is heating up, and we'll be going head-to-head with countries like Italy, Spain and Germany, whose birthrates are falling as dramatically as ours, and whose workforce is also greying as quickly as ours.

And finally, globalization has presented us with new game and a whole set of new players— like China and India, who are investing heavily in higher education, technology and innovation. For example, China is graduating three times as many engineers each year than the United States does, and many Chinese immigrants are actually leaving the west to go back to China, because they see better opportunities at home.

The Canadian government has set a target of welcoming 300,000 new immigrants each year, or about one per cent of our existing population. New Canadians make up about 70 per cent of the growth in the Canadian labour force. By 2011, they will account for all the growth in our workforce.

So our success depends not only on our ability to attract new immigrants, but on providing an environment where new Canadians can maximize their potential. This can be Canada's competitive advantage— and Toronto is the flash point.

Historically, we don't have the best track record in this area— and I hope that is about to change.

The federal government's "Internationally Trained Workers Initiative" is a step forward for our nation, and I commend the government for its action and leadership.

Yet no level of government can bear the burden alone. Governments can attract skilled immigrants to Canada, but once they have arrived, businesses have to pick up the ball.

But we have not.

In fact, we're dropping it— at least according to the Public Policy Forum. In a survey conducted with over 2,000 Canadian employers in 2004, the Forum found three pieces of discouraging news.

  • First, employers overlook immigrants in their human resource planning;
  • Second, they don't hire immigrants at the level at which they were trained; and
  • Third, employers say they face challenges integrating recent immigrants into their workforce.

The Conference Board of Canada goes one step further, saying that Canadian companies are almost myopic about connecting the dots between Canada's aging workforce and the impending skill shortages in our workforce. In a recent report called "Business Critical", they assert that businesses just aren't seeing the solution staring us in the face: maximizing the talents of visible minorities and immigrants.

This solution will bring untold benefits for our businesses, our communities and our country— and will have a profound human impact as well.

I'd like to tell you a story about Apoorva Shukla.

Apporva is 32 years old.

  • He has degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Business Administration.
  • He's a Chartered Financial Analyst.
  • He had 8 years experience working in four different banks and venture capital firms.
  • He speaks four languages— including three Indian dialects.

But his education and experience were all based in India.

In 2004, Apoorva arrived in Canada, with his wife and four-year old daughter in tow, hoping to make a better life.

Like most new immigrants, his network here was limited. He was used to working in an industry that looked quite different back home than it did in Canada.

If Apoorva had landed in Canada five years earlier, you could predict how this story would go. He would probably be underemployed now, working in a field unrelated to his training and background. Like many other new Canadians, he might have become a successful entrepreneur, but likely he would feel like he was wasting his education, and not maximizing his contribution to Canadian society.

But that didn't happen.

Because by the time Apoorva got to Toronto, so had Career Bridge.

RBC was a founding supporter of this internship program designed to eliminate employment barriers facing experienced professionals, and as part of our support, we committed to placing 10 interns in Toronto.

Within 8 months of arriving in Canada, Apoorva was matched up with RBC, and he began a work placement as an account manager trainee. Apoorva aced his training, and during his six-month internship, he generated $2 million in new business for RBC.

Now, RBC is one of the largest employers in Canada— with about 16,000 people in the GTA alone. And we just added one more. Apoorva was simply too valuable for us to lose, and I am proud to tell you that two weeks ago, he became a full-time employee of RBC.

I wanted to share this story because it's a win for everyone: for Apoorva and his family, for RBC and our clients, for Toronto and for Canada.

RBC sets a high premium on diversity. I chair our Diversity Leadership Council, made up of senior leaders from across our businesses. Just to let you know how important this issue is, I can tell you that it is the only committee other than my executive committee that I sit on.

This Council sets RBC's strategy and goals for diversity and employment equity, as well as monitoring our progress. We meet quarterly to make sure the talent pipeline is being filled with qualified candidates from diverse groups, as well as tracking the results of our recruitment efforts, promotions and terminations. Each of our businesses has targets and objectives with respect to gender, people with disabilities and visible minorities so we can measure our success (or lack thereof), rather than just talking a good game.

And just as a point of interest, we've proven that developing a strategy and setting goals really does work.

For example, we set our focus on women in the late 70s. Our first woman director joined the board of directors in 1976, and we appointed our first woman executive in 1979. Currently, women make up about one-third of our management ranks in North America— a number we are working hard to increase. I'm hoping we have the same kind of success with people who are visible minorities, because if we can, it will mean we took full advantage of this opportunity.

Currently, about 24 per cent of our workforce is comprised of visible minorities, as is ten per cent of our executive management team— some were born outside of Canada, while others are children of immigrants. Those numbers are still too low, but we're moving in the right direction, and are developing programs to help better integrate new employees into our workforce.

For example, we have mentoring arrangements and English business language classes available to new employees, and even developed cross-cultural awareness training for our recruitment and human resource professionals— the first training of its kind in Canada.

One of the largest barriers to employment for skilled immigrants is in the area of foreign credentials. The government's "Internationally Trained Worker Initiative" has an entire program dedicated to this— but businesses can do their part as well.

One small example from RBC. We used to ask prospective employees to provide the name of the institution where they received their degrees or accreditations on our application form. But if our recruiting staff weren't familiar with the institution, we risked passing over qualified foreign candidates. So we removed that field entirely from our application— and follow up on credentials and education later in the process. We hope this quick fix will move us one step closer toward bias-free hiring.

We don't have all the answers, but we know that if we have a strong reputation for valuing diversity, we will be able to draw from a broader pool of Canadian and international talent. Once those candidates become our employees, we will see a bottom-line benefit for the company. This year, for example, RBC is developing a new strategy for attracting new immigrant business within the GTA, and our success will very much depend on the talent and diverse backgrounds of our employees.

So while we do believe in the "social justice" imperative of diversity, I personally believe that it is the business case that will ultimately generate results for most companies. Most people believe in social justice, but the business case can really propel them into action, even outside of their comfort zone.

The final thought I'd like to leave you with comes from Richard Florida in his book The Rise of the Creative Class. While most experts say that technology is the driving force behind social change and economic development, Florida disagrees. He says creativity is now the fundamental source of economic growth, and builds a link right back to diversity.

"Economic development," he says, "is powered by creative people, who prefer places that are diverse, tolerant and open to new ideas. ...Greater and more diverse concentrations of creative capital... [will] lead to higher rates of innovation, high-technology business formation, job creation and economic growth. "

The good news, according to Florida, is that Toronto gets it— and he mentions us by name— because Toronto is striving to become a creative community, not just a centre of business and technology, by leveraging the diversity of our people.

The bottom line is that, for businesses, diversity is both a great opportunity and the right thing to do. I believe that a personal commitment from senior business leaders must filter through the entire organization, so that companies can unleash the full potential of all our people and our teams. And in doing so, we'll discover that unleashing the power of diversity and capitalizing on immigration will become a competitive advantage for Canada, and a source of national pride.

Thank you.