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Chinese professionals strive for career success in Canada

When Judy Wu moved to Canada in fall 2003 on a student visa, her objective was to join her then- boyfriend, now her husband, who was already studying here.

Almost eight years later, Judy works for one of Canada's largest banks, a position that makes her the envy of many of her Chinese acquaintances.

Judy, a native of Shandong province, attributes her career growth in Canada to the hard work she put in first improving her English language ability and then earning an MBA from a Canadian university, as well as a stroke of luck in job hunting.

During her last year in the MBA program, a manager from her future employer's commercial banking unit gave a lecture to the MBA students, and Judy so impressed the manager that she was invited for a job interview right away. After several rounds of interviews at the bank, Judy was offered a job in the commercial banking unit and started working in 2007, a few months after her graduation that summer.

"Unlike many others, my job search was quite smooth," she reminisced.

Securing a job in banking, a highly respected professional field, is notoriously competitive. Getting into the banking field was a big achievement for a Chinese immigrant looking for her first job in Canada.

Among the more than 100 workers in Judy's unit, she is the only person originally from China's mainland. In contrast, many new immigrants have to either switch careers or take entry-level jobs in a field in which they already have had years of experience in their native countries.

No statistics is available, but anecdotes suggest that upon arriving in Canada, a large number of Chinese professionals have gone back to school to acquire skills more in demand in Canada, thus abandoning their previous career path; or take lower-level positions in their professional field. Many, particularly those who cannot overcome the language barrier, end up working for businesses specifically targeting the ethnic Chinese population.

Many who immigrate to Canada under the skilled worker program initially face the language hurdle. They may have a good grasp of English in the context of their professions, yet the language barrier remains in daily interactions with English-speakers in their work and social environments.

Immediately upon landing in Canada, Judy focused on improving her English by enrolling in intensive language training programs. Improved language ability paved the path for her eventually joining the almost 500,000 professionals working in Canada's banking industry.

"Most Chinese are very good at studying. But without English ability, one cannot achieve career growth in Canada," Judy said.

Colin Chu, who works in the IT department of a leading service provider for banks and insurance companies, agrees with Judy's observation. Having honed his English skills while a PH.D. candidate in computer science at a university in Singapore, Colin focused his efforts on first understanding the local job market upon moving to Canada in 2008. After two to three months of attending various training programs and connecting with head hunters and other agencies, Colin gained understanding of what local employers expect of their recruits and secured his current job after applying to a handful of employers.

"Many rush into sending out resumes immediately upon arriving here, which may not be effective,"said Colin. "A more effective way is to first research the local job market and become well- prepared before launching the search."

Come prepared, Colin was able to project a confidence in his professional achievement, his potentials for growth, and an easy going personality that boded well for team work, in no small measure thanks to his ability to communicate effectively in English, in the several rounds of interviews.

He was among the minority who secured their first job with a large Canadian company. A far more common career path for new immigrants is to work for smaller companies in the beginning and then moving to larger businesses as one's experience grows.

However, language ability is only the first step. A much bigger challenge for Chinese immigrants, or immigrants from many other countries, is reconcile cultural differences and build a network of professional and social contacts to aid career growth.

Despite their good launches from the start line, both Judy and Colin voice the sense that they seem to be hitting a glass ceiling at their respective workplaces due to cultural differences and lack of a professional network.

Both agree that a precondition for promotions and other growth opportunities is developing relationships with one's supervisor and other senior managers, not just in work-related matters but also on a personal level. This requires not just language ability but also cultural affinity, which could be challenging for those who grew up in an entirely different cultural environment.

If these new immigrants are looking for guidance and advice from a mentor, few fits the bill better than Tao Thomas Qu, who was among the first Chinese students venturing overseas in the 1980's and is today the Strategic Improvement Manager at Ontario Power Generation Nuclear.

In addition to language ability, Tao cites the following key factors in immigrants' successfully adjusting to their new country.

Immigrants must not restrict their social circles to within the Chinese community, Tao maintained. "One must establish a network of contacts and friends with native Canadians in the community."

Leadership skill development is integral to career advancement, Tao noted, citing his own experience in taking advantage of leadership training programs at ONG as well as developing leadership skills and experience through involvement in community services, which are highly regarded in Canada.

"Everyone acknowledges the glass ceiling (for foreign professionals) exists, including Canadians," Tao noted. "It is nothing to hide."

However, the outlook is "positive."

Glass ceiling or not, both Colin and Judy already have their eyes set on the next stage of their respective careers.

Colin aims to join a global company to gain more international experience, while Judy thinks her next big opportunity lies in the growing affluent Chinese community in Canada and the expanding global reach of China-based companies. She wants to join the Asian Banking unit of one of the big global banks.

"We must take advantage of our Chinese heritage to compete successfully," she said. 


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