Ready to Work Program Sets Refugees on Path to Successful Tourism Careers

Canada’s Federal Tourism Strategy was released in 2011 and identifies four priorities including “fostering an adequate supply of skills and labour to enhance visitor experiences through quality service”. The Canadian Tourism Human Resource Council (CTHRC) was named in the strategy as the organization best suited to address labour market issues and promote professionalism in the tourism sector by addressing skills shortages and fostering a human resources development culture in the industry. One of the many ways the CTHRC fulfills this mandate is by administering the Ready to Work program, a bridging program which provides skills development to underrepresented labour groups in order to improve recruitment and retention of workers from these groups in the tourism workforce. The CTHRC works closely with its partner Human Resource Organizations across Canada, who deliver the Ready To Work program in their province or territory.

The extraordinary difference that the Ready to Work program is making in the lives of participants is evident in the stories of Bhutanese refugees recently resettled in Canada.

In eastern Nepal, there are seven Bhutanese refugee camps in the lowlands neighbouring the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains.  The approximately 100,000 refugees who call them home have lived here since government efforts to dictate and enforce a single national culture and language and to restrict citizenship forced them to flee Bhutan between 1988 and 1993. The camps were established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as a response to the growing humanitarian crisis caused by tens of thousands of Bhutanese arriving in Nepal with no means of sustenance or survival.

Life in the camps is austere, with shacks of bamboo and thatch built for shelter, shared latrines within a few metres of housing, and a dependence on outside organizations such as the Association of Medical Doctors of Asia (AMDA) for primary health care and the World Food Programme (WFP) for biweekly food rations. Although conditions have vastly improved since the camps opened, there is a constant risk of disease spreading through the cramped settlements, as well as threat of devastating fires started by primitive cooking and heating implements. Fires in two of the camps on March 23, 2011 left over five thousand homeless.

Despite these difficult conditions, the refugees managed to establish a formal education system in the very early days of the exodus. This tradition continues, with each generation taking on the responsibility of teaching the one to follow. Although many of the Bhutanese have spent their entire lives as refugees and are not allowed to pursue work or education outside of the camps, they are relatively well-educated and remarkably eager to learn.

In 2006, several countries including Canada expressed a willingness to receive those Bhutanese interested in third country resettlement, and refugees from the camps in Nepal began arriving in their new homes in 2008, with over 2,500 choosing to relocate in Canada by 2011.

Bhutanese refugees are a recognized refugee priority in the province of Nova Scotia, and make up a high percentage of Government Assisted Refugees (GAR) settling in the province. Citizenship and Immigration Canada resettles most of the Bhutanese refugees in the Halifax area where essential support from settlement and integration agencies is available.

The largest immigrant serving agency in Atlantic Canada, Immigrant Settlement and Integration Services (ISIS) is located in the city, and provides newcomers with employment placement, language training, settlement services and counselling, business training, interpreters, and skills training.

Steven Claveau is an employment specialist with ISIS. He clarifies the process.

“Government-assisted refugees  (GARs) are identified by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)overseas. Once they arrive, they are provided special settlement services through ISIS and they are supported by the federal government for one year, at approximately the same rates as social assistance. They are landed immigrants, and our biggest goal is social and economic integration in order to empower new arrivals so they can take charge of their life in Canada.”

One of the organizations that ISIS works with is the Nova Scotia Tourism Human Resource Council (NSTHRC), which delivers a wide range of training related to tourism occupations, including the Ready to Work program. While ISIS assists the refugees with cultural challenges, it often refers them to NSTHRC for skills training, and the Ready to Work program is often a good fit for the Bhutanese refugees.

“They come from a training background— in camps, the value of education is passed down from generation to generation and was taken on by the refugees since they often don’t have the language levels to attend  formal training from an educational institution— so are a perfect fit for Ready to Work”, explains Mr. Claveau. In fact, the program’s effectiveness for the Bhutanese has become well known in the community.  “Through word of mouth, these refugees come into the office asking to be placed in Ready to Work, and employers ask for Ready to Work graduates from Bhutan when looking for help recruiting. Most of the refugees who participate in the Ready to Work program find work in frontline occupations in the accommodations industry, where they become stars at the workplace.”

Two Bhutanese refugees who have settled in Halifax and participated in the Ready to Work program talked about their experience coming to Canada, and how the program has helped them establish themselves and start their working lives in their new country. The fact that the refugee camps are built around a training culture is evident in both of their stories, as is their willingness to take on new challenges, their eagerness to learn new skills, and their determination to build a new life for themselves and their families.

Dilli Ram Dhungana was born in Bhutan, but grew up and was educated in a refugee camp in Nepal. He attended the Institute of Fine Art and Commercial Art in the camp, which teaches refugee children fine arts while focussing on helping them express their feelings and start their new life. He later shared what he had learned with youngsters by working as Chief Coordinator of the Institute.

He and his family arrived in Canada in June, 2010. He heard about the Ready to Work program, and that the training it provided was essential when looking for work in the tourism sector.

“I talked to my employment specialist, Steven at ISIS, about Ready to Work, and he gave me information on interview skills that helped me pass the interview and get involved in the program.”

Once enrolled, he found that the program more than lived up to its reputation.

“Ready to Work built up my knowledge to work in different positions in the tourism sector in Canada. It gave me the confidence to apply for work in this sector and helped me to get prepared for interviews and answer the interviewer’s questions.”

After graduating from Ready to Work, he had the skills and confidence required to enter the Canadian workforce.

“I know how to manage time, provide excellent service, work in a team and maintain privacy. The program helped me to be aware of workplace hazardous materials, and the First Aid training is helping me in day to day life. I am now working at Delta Halifax as a steward helper in the kitchen and my future plan is to become a cook.”

The value placed on education and training in the refugee camps is evident when Dilli Ram Dhungana is asked what he thinks is the most important benefit of the Ready to Work program. He answers, simply that “it is always good for the community to have educated and knowledgeable people and the knowledgeable workers that employers need.”

Gangaram Adhikari was born in a Bhutanese refugee camp in Nepal, where his family of five lived for more than 18 years. His father and brother were teachers in refugee schools, and once he finished Grade Ten he volunteered at camp libraries, assisting children with finding books, with reading and with checking materials in and out. When he arrived in Canada, he found the Ready to Work program in much the same way as Dilli Ram Dhungana.

“My employment specialist at ISIS talked about the Ready to Work program and helped me to fill an application form. I like to work with people, he also told me how much easier it would be to find jobs in hospitality after doing RTW.”

When asked how Ready to Work prepared him for his new career, Gangaram doesn’t hesitate.

“Ready to Work taught me about different tourism careers, industry terms, communication skills, organizational skills, numeracy skills, and team work. It gave me the ability to multi-task, be flexible, and adapt. We also had some important workshops on WHMIS, Serve Right, First Aid/ CPR, Food Handlers, SUPERHOSTS, Workplace Etiquette, Time Management, Basic Budgeting, and Stress Management.”

He is clearly happy and excited about his new position and future prospects.

“We had a hotel tour in the program, where we talked to Human Resource Managers from different hotels and I was able to give my resume to them. I am now working at The Prince George Hotel, Halifax in the position of Housekeeping Room Attendant and will get cross trained for other departments. My future plan is to start university while still working part time and to graduate as a chemical engineer.” 

While the difference the Ready to Work program has made in his life is obvious, Gangaram recognizes that the program has a larger impact in the community.

“I found the Ready to work program important for learning about the Canadian workplace environment and tourism industry and its benefits to country, community and myself. It helps employees develop and improve their skills, work safely, and improve their understanding of the industry. It creates employment opportunities, it generates revenue, and it builds relationships between people. There were thirteen candidates for my seven week program, and eight of them were new Canadians. However, this program can help not only new Canadians like me, but all Canadians who need help finding work.”

The effectiveness of the partnership between ISIS and NSTHRC, and the positive effects of the Ready to Work program in Halifax have been extraordinary. As labour shortages in Canada return, employers will be forced to look to new Canadians, temporary foreign workers, and other underrepresented labour groups to fill necessary positions. In turn, employment bridging programs like Ready to Work will become more and more important to  maintain “an adequate supply of skills and labour to enhance visitor experiences through quality service” in the tourism and hospitality sector.

To illustrate the benefits of the program one last time, Steven Claveau from ISIS shares a remarkable statistic.

“Traditionally, about ninety percent of Government Assisted Refugees would apply for social assistance after their first year in the country. Since we began working with NSTHRC and Ready to Work, the number dropped to below sixty percent.”