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Keen & green: How an innovative mentoring program connects new Canadians with environmental jobs

It's, as Alanis Morissette might put it, so ironic. On the one hand, we're frequently hearing tales of foreign-trained medical doctors and architects driving cabs and flipping burgers because their professional experience from another country isn't getting them hired here. Meanwhile, many employers are crying out for qualified candidates. While sectors like health, oil and mining come immediately to mind as professional-starved, a unique program is aiming at tackling the disconnect between new Canadians and the environmental management sector.
The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) is primarily an environmental agency that supports a healthy built and natural landscape in the Toronto area. But for the past few years, they've also been helping match highly skilled professionals trained in other countries with positions relating to the environment through their M2P program, which stands for Mentoring to Placement for Environmental Professionals.
"People are working very hard, often in survival jobs, and they may be demotivated after some time of not being successful," says M2P senior program coordinator Leigha Abergel, who herself has a master's degree in environmental studies. "So when they do get that position or they are given that chance, they are so happy that it really is very rewarding for everyone involved in the project."
The average candidate comes to the job with six years of post-secondary training and more than 10 years of work experience in their field. Consider Shirin Varzgani, a graduate of the program who's now working as a planner with TRCA. "I have a background in architecture, and I was quite ambitious as a young girl, I guess; I got myself a scholarship in a German university in infrastructure planning," she says. After completing a two-year master's program, she returned home to Pakistan, where she worked for several years before catching the travel bug again.
"I came to Canada, hoping the pastures were really green here. It is green, but I had a lot of difficulty getting into my field. I went back to school and got a master's degree in environmental studies at York, but even once out of there, I was still having great difficulty."
When Varzgani heard about the M2P program, she applied, was accepted, and "from there on, it's history, she says. "It's a great program that helped me get back into the field that I love."
A 2008 Trillium Foundation paper on Ontario's foreign-trained professionals points out that recognition for education and work experience from outside of Canada is only one barrier. Lack of Canadian experience also makes it difficult to find work, and for many people, it's simply hard to get to know people in the profession. The M2P program addresses these challenges with a multifaceted approach that includes one-on-one mentoring with professionals in the field.
"We match [candidates] with a work placement, a mentor, technical and soft skill workshops like workplace, culture and communication and employment coaching," says Abergel. "There are other bridging programs that work with new Canadians with environmental backgrounds, but TRCA has the only employer-led bridging program; others are delivered by various services aiding immigrants. We also work with people long-term, over two years normally, so we also assist them with job retention once they become employed."
Paul Charbonneau, president of EnergyAdvocate, has served as a mentor for several candidates in the program. For him, "this is a terrific opportunity to meet all kinds of bright people who are here from all over the world with great ideas," he says. "It's neat to meet people who are so positive and looking forward to contributing to the green economy."
Mentorship takes sensitivity; Charbonneau recalls the shyness of one candidate who accompanied him on a trip. "It took him days before he was ready to ask me [at a gas station], 'Why do Canadians call it gas, when clearly it's a liquid?'"
Abergel says the program, which is funded by the federal government and the province, has attracted candidates from about 20 countries, and 80 per cent of the first cohort has already found employment in their fields in Canada. They may end up working in any one of several sectors; for instance, she says, "we would be looking at environmental scientists: people doing watershed planning, people who work in monitoring lakes and wetlands, or they could be doing terrestrial monitoring."
Others may work in areas like botany, zoology or forestry, or as planners, or in the fields of green building and energy. Or perhaps they will be "mechanical engineers, civil engineers, people in project management, maybe with green roofing or solar technology or energy auditing, things like that," Abergel says.
"Because the people that I met in this program were coming from all over the world, it was so amazing to get all these different viewpoints and all this talent," says Varzgani."You can't imagine how talented these people all are; it's a great program to bring us all together."

Sarah B. Hood's writing explores the culture of food, fashion, urban life, environment and the arts. Her latest book, We Sure Can! How Jams and Pickles are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food, has been shortlisted for Taste Canada—The Food Writing Awards 2012.
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