V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer

Pshaw to Canadian experi


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Photo: Vivian Song

Production line supervisor Jessica Chen started out at Samtack assembling hard drives. Using her contacts and experience from China, she boosted production radically by redesigning the line.

Published in The Toronto Star, February, 2010.

MARKHAM — Having “Canadian experience” on the resumé means squat to managers at Samtack. And it shows.

As one of the largest computer-and-parts distributing companies in Canada, the Markham-based company has been using a hiring formula that taps into the skills of international immigrants, instead of dismissing their native work experience as irrelevant, as many companies might.

Jessica Chen is a classic example. Chen is 25 and her English is still halting. She giggles nervously when asked if she likes being in a position of responsibility at a $130-million company.

After considering the question, casting a quick glance at her boss, and then breaking out into an irrepressible grin, she nods her head in a definitive yes.

When Chen first came to Canada five years ago from China, she started out at Samtack working the line and piecing together external hard drives. It was a primitive process: Screws were scattered across tables and workers bumped elbows as they assembled parts by hand.

But Chen, who worked on production lines back home, knew from experience that a new, automated assembly line could improve efficiency and make the work — often hard on shoulders and arms — easier for the employees.

So, using her contacts back home, she got stuck in and designed, bought and implemented a new assembly line for the company. The move saw production shoot up from 4,000 hard drives a day, to 16,000.

Now she’s a supervisor.

For recognizing the skills of new immigrants and hiring newcomers such as Chen as part of its business plan, the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council, or TRIEC, has awarded Samtack the RBC Immigrant Advantage Award.

“This award looks for businesses where they can demonstrate the business impact of leveraging the skills of immigrants and deliver tangible, quantifiable results,” said Kevin McLellan, TRIEC program manager. “Samtack increased their market share significantly, and they’ve done this through the contacts that new immigrants have brought to the company.”

Samtack is a leading computer and parts distributor in Canada, whose clients include Wal-Mart, Future Shop, Best Buy Canada, Staples and Office Depot. In nine years, Samtack president Royson Ng says revenue has skyrocketed from $20 million to $130 million in Canada.

As a Malaysian immigrant who came to Canada 19 years ago, Ng worked his way up from being a gas station attendant, retail salesperson and regional manager, to president of Samtack and said he wanted to give fellow newcomers similar opportunities.

“I find immigrants to be really hardworking, because they want to prove themselves. They also have a good attitude, and you really need to have a good attitude to succeed.”

It’s also one of the most important characteristics Fouad Jazouli, vice-president of marketing and operations, looks for when interviewing candidates. He balks at the notion of “Canadian experience,” saying it means little to his company.

“We could care less about Canadian experience,” he said. “What we care about is the quality of the person, their attitude, if they’re open to change and wants to grow.”

The company has 115 employees, 90 per cent of whom are immigrants from China, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Africa, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Middle East. The turnover rate is almost non-existent.

Not only did product manager Chris Chen, 46, want to grow personally and professionally, he helped the company, itself, grow exponentially. With a background in advertising back home in China, Chen had a roster of overseas contacts in the computer business that he was able to leverage for Samtack’s accessories department.

He bargains with contacts he knows by first name, finds new products and oversees about a thousand accessories for the company — in a department that never existed prior to his arrival.

His new role is a far cry from his previous job as sales manager at a retail computer company, where he wasn’t making the best use of his skills.

“This job is exciting. It challenges me and is engaging,” Chen said.

Giving fellow immigrants a fighting chance in Canada is Ng’s way of giving back to the country he credits for his own successes.

“Canada has given me some very good opportunities,” he said.

SIDEBAR:

Marvin Ti’s resumé is densely-packed with impressive job titles and achievements at multi-national IT companies such as IBM, Cisco Systems, Microsoft and Compaq.

He boasts 13 years of experience in managerial positions back home in the Philippines and is an articulate conversationalist. English is not a problem.

His last job title was channel manager of IBM Software Group.

When he arrived in Toronto with his wife and two kids last March, he knew it would take time to find a job and was willing to accept a less senior position.

He didn’t expect the job search to extend into a year.

“I did come prepared and I knew there was a recession, but this is longer than what I prepared for,” Ti said from his Markham home. “It’s been a bit frustrating.”

Like many newcomers to Canada, Ti and his wife decided to uproot their family for the sake of their two young girls. Though they led a comfortable life back home, Ti wanted to give their kids a bright future — one they felt their native country wouldn’t be able to provide.

Since arriving last year, Ti estimates he replied to about 30 online job ads in the IT field with no response. And, after being paired with a mentor through the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council’s mentoring program, he now knows why: The original resumé he sent out was three pages long, single-spaced, and much too wordy.

“It was a novel,” he chuckled. “No one was going to take a second glance.”

Ti is more optimistic about his job search now that he has a mentor to help him navigate the corporate work culture in Canada. He’s been introduced to industry contacts at HP, IBM and Cisco Systems and has had five interviews.

But he wishes he had learned of the services earlier and that employers wouldn’t be so quick to judge.

“I was also told I was overqualified,” Ti said. “I don’t know why that should be a barrier. They would be getting more bang for their buck.”

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