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Where even time-strapped professionals can find time to help newcomers improve their prospects

It sounds familiar. You take a seat opposite a stranger, a bell rings and you have 10 minutes to ask questions and to get to know each other. Then the bell rings again and you have to move to your right and try your luck with the next person.
The difference is that these aren't singles searching for a love connection, and the questions they're asking have nothing to do with feelings. They're immigrants looking for a career track, not romance.
With luck, these 10-minute encounters with possible mentors from some of Canada's biggest companies will help these skilled new Canadians land their dream jobs.
Ada Wong, senior manager of marketing and communications at Accessible Community Counselling and Employment Services (ACCES), admits that the six-year-old speed mentoring program is based on the idea of speed dating. The focus here, though, is on helping ACCES clients find out what job hunting is all about. While clients may have the skills, Wong says, they often have no idea of Toronto's and Canada's work culture.
"Eighty percent of our clients are new Canadians. They arrive with the challenge of having no Canadian experience," says Wong. "The speed aspect really focusses on the fact that when you meet with professionals, you have a very short time to impress them. Our stress is on the preparation of our clients."
More than 60 mentors attended ACCES's annual large-scale speed mentoring event in May. For the last two years, they have also been hosting five or six smaller free events each month, sponsored by the Bank of Montreal. Each runs about 90 minutes, and offers clients the chance to meet with six or seven mentors. Professionals from a variety of fields, including finance, sales and marketing, human resources and IT offer themselves as mentors.
"Our clients get advice on their résumé, job searches, what's happening in that sector," says Wong. "Sometimes, it leads directly to job opportunities, or the mentor goes back with a recommendation."
The mentoring sessions can provide information as basic as how to look for a job in Canada, where the job-seeking process can be very different than it is in other countries. Cezmi Aydin, an IT professional who recently moved to Canada from Turkey, says the speed mentoring sessions helped him start establishing a network of connections.
"I had at least 10 years of experience," says Aydin. "I thought I could find a job in my field. But it's quite different from Turkey where even your résumé is in a very different format. So you have to adapt to the new style and to the new requirements for a job search. I started to apply to online job postings. But though I received some calls, there were very few. I understood at that point, I was doing something wrong. That was not the optimal way to job search."
Aydin began attending a five-week course that ACCES offers in conjunction with Ryerson University to teach newcomers about Canadian culture and presentation skills. When he heard about the speed mentoring program, Aydin says he decided to attend one of the May sessions. He initially had some doubts about the format.
"Before, I wasn't sure. It was with complete strangers and you only have 10 minutes," he says. "After the event, I realized the mentors were very helpful. I had my questions ready. One of the things I wanted feedback on was my résumé, especially from recruiters and HR people. I had some questions about companies, about the dynamics of the Canadian market, the sectors that require my skills and general perspectives on my industry."
Aydin says the sessions proved to be a good way for him to start to establish connections.
"I was an experienced IT manager in my own country. But when you come to a new country, it's very difficult to build the same network. This gave me a chance to meet several people in one condensed event. After the event, I sent connection requests to several mentors. We exchanged e-mails. They were really helpful, really nice people. They really try to help."
Aydin is also part of a four-month program through ACCES that provides him with access to more traditional mentoring, with somebody who offers more time. But he says the speed mentoring events were very helpful.
"It's mainly networking, getting to know people in my field."
That's one of the biggest benefits speed mentoring sessions can provide, says Adrian Cheung, the director of multicultural markets at BMO Financial Services. Cheung has served as a mentor at speed mentoring events, and says it often is about imparting the basics.
"They show me their résumés, they talk about their experience, we talk about how to get a job. More than half of jobs are not advertised. The advice I give them is that the networking part is very important."
Cheung says the speed mentoring format also offers the advantage of allowing newcomers to meet a variety of professionals at the same time.
"I think this is very creative. In order to serve so many candidates, it's very efficient. Within a very short time, the mentees can get a lot of different advice."
And, he says, the sessions offer enough time to allow the mentors to impart some of the subtle distinctions that those looking for a job in a new country need to learn.
"A lot of the mentees, they have the skills, they have degrees. But the one thing they lack is the soft skills. It can be as simple as a handshake, how you talk to the interviewer to how you'll perform as part of a team. We use telephone-based screening a lot. We use behaviour-focussed interviews. You tell them they have to show a passion, you have to see the sparkle in their eyes.
"I encourage the mentees to treat job-hunting as full-time job itself. It's like getting up at nine and going into the office, hunt for a job until five."
Cheung says he is even willing to pass along résumés to his own company, but only if the mentees demonstrate a real determination. He admits BMO's interest in the mentoring programs is not entirely selfless. It's also good for business, he says.
"Nowadays, I see lots of big companies working really hard. We all realize it's an important market. There's 280,000 newcomers coming to Canada every year. A lot of customers come from ethnic backgrounds. It's good to have a workforce reflecting the diversity of Canada. Different branches of the bank have different staff reflecting market demographics."
The motivations can also be person. Cheung says he wants to provide newcomers with the help he didn't have himself when he arrived from Hong Kong more than 20 years ago.
"I have all kinds of experience of how tough it was when you try to get a job. Twenty years ago, we didn't have anything like this. It was very hard to find these sorts of organizations. It was nothing close to today," says Cheung, "today they offer everything. Every community has organizations mentoring newcomers, helping people like me get into the workforce."

Krishna Rau is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto, with a particular interest in social and political issues. His work has appeared in numerous publications including The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Report on Business,Now, TorontoStandard.com, This Magazine, Xtra and Canadian Forum. He also has a chapter in the recent anthology, White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race.

The top two photos are Adrian Cheung; photo 3 is Cezmi Aydin.
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