An Untapped Source of Innovation: Our Immigrants

Dipal Damani

Please note that the views expressed are those of the author.

Canada is missing out on a large untapped source of innovation – approximately 250,000 immigrants that come to this country every year. They bring with them new ways of thinking, doing business, and competing. Unfortunately, these talents go unnoticed. It is well known that most of our newcomers continue to face barriers in our workforce and end up in survival jobs that do not make use of their talents.

We can no longer afford to keep this up.

According to a 2011 World Economic Forum report entitled Global Talent Risk, one of the key pillars of global competitiveness is innovation. However, Canada does not show up in their top 12 innovation rankings. The Conference Board of Canada has ranked Canada 14 out of 17 industrialized countries on its innovation index. If Canada wants to remain competitive in today’s fragile economy, it needs to do more.

The World Economic Forum report suggests using untapped sources of innovation such as immigrants. In 2010, the Conference Board of Canada released a report entitled Immigrants as Innovators: Boosting Canada’s Competiveness, which argued that immigrants are beneficial to Canada. For example, their hard work ethic and willingness to take risks. The report researched companies of various sizes and came to an important conclusion: Canadian companies that hired immigrants were better innovators.

Unfortunately, it is well known that immigrants to Canada continue to encounter barriers, the most commonly cited being the lack of “Canadian work experience.” This is one of the most difficult barriers to understand as it does not have a scientific or evidence-based explanation. What makes “Canadian work experience” stand out from all other forms of work experience? Is it a particular business process or methodology? If this was the case, our country would be a top innovator and have a leading competitive edge in the world. However, the research shows otherwise, that we are laggards compared to the rest of the industrialized world. Without solid evidence to validate the “Canadian experience” requirement, we are erecting unnecessary barriers that, in fact, limit our potential.

There are many bridging and internship programs run by governments and community organizations to help immigrants gain “Canadian work experience.” A key component of these programs is the cultural competency course on how to integrate into a Canadian workplace. However, if we peel back the layers, what we are asking our immigrants to do is to speak like a Canadian, act like a Canadian, and think like a Canadian. This is risky, as we are fostering a homogenous workforce, perhaps diverse in ethnic composition, but similar in other respects. In doing so, we are inadvertently resisting new ideas, processes and thoughts. We are stifling innovation.

Businesses around the world are benefiting from a multi-ethnic workforce. Prime examples are multinationals – PepsiCo, Unilever, KPMG, Procter and Gamble, among others. Their head offices and satellite offices around the world are thriving thanks to a global workforce. In addition to recruiting a diverse pool of employees, many of these organizations are trying to ensure that they are well-represented at all levels. While these measures may not be for altruistic reasons, these organizations have figured out that the payoffs are worth it. The vast array of experience and opinions enable these organizations to stay on top and ahead of their competition. They know that if they asked for ‘native experience’ and did not change their practices to accommodate and promote a diverse workforce, they would not be where they are today.

Unfortunately, Canadian employers are slow to adopt the practices of multinationals because they do not want to take risks on unfamiliar applicants. We are the ones that lose out. Immigrants bring with them new business ideas that can drive efficiencies, connections to global markets that can open new revenue lines, and new perspectives that can drive innovation. By eliminating unnecessary barriers and tapping into the approximately 250, 000 immigrants that come to Canada every year, we have the opportunity to occupy a top spot on the global rankings for innovation.

Dipal Damani graduated from the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto in 2010. 

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