Departures and Arrivals: Attracting Global Talent to Canada’s Tourism Sector

By Joe Baker, Tourism HR Canada Board of Directors

Here we are at the beginning of another new year, looking ahead and doing everything we can to craft the next normal as we elevate Canada’s tenacious tourism sector through our most essential element: talent. In many ways 2022 felt like the turbulence one experiences on an airplane as it transitions from the tarmac to the skies. Let’s hope 2023 feels more like reaching cruising altitude along the way to our desired destination—prosperity and well-being. For everyone.   

If you’ve followed my musings through Tourism HR Canada’s Tourism HR Insider over the years, you will know I like to say my career has had three distinct phases. I started in the hotel and restaurant industry, then moved into hospitality and tourism education, and these days I am actively consulting in the world of workforce development. When I started my career in the restaurant industry, it was a very competitive job market. Employers had high standards; potential employees lined up just for the opportunity to interview for jobs; and we all worked as if there was no tomorrow. This is not to say things were perfect, but rather a reflection that the industry was effervescent.   

The Domestic Decline

Once I transitioned into hospitality and tourism post-secondary leadership roles, I can vividly remember the early days of the decline in domestic enrolment across Canadian higher education institutions. At first there was fear, then denial, followed by skepticism and eventually acceptance. Once these institutions recognized how significant international enrolment would become for the future of these programs, they began to embrace these students. They created wrap-around support services and offered training for staff and faculty to better serve and teach these brilliant and talented people of the world.

And at the same time, hospitality and tourism employers started to open their doors to international students through work-integrated learning and eventually by hiring graduates with enthusiasm. This trend still stands today. Canadian post-secondary institutions and hospitality and tourism employers have come to depend on international students. And so they should—these people are remarkable. And those who support them along the way embody all that’s great about our industry—helping others succeed and welcoming newcomers with empathy and guidance.

A Parallel Path

If you stop to think about it for a moment, the decline in domestic interest in pursuing and maintaining careers in hospitality and tourism is following a remarkably similar path. As we emerged from the pandemic, there was fear about our declining workforce. Maybe some denial about the depths of the problem. Perhaps some skepticism about solutions being proposed. And I would argue that 2023 will be a year of accepting that we need to rely on the people of the world as a long-term solution to our workforce woes. We have the distinct opportunity to create workplace cultures and economic conditions that help people thrive. This will be our greatest challenge and perhaps our greatest prospect for redemption.

But this article is not actually about international students. It’s about immigration. And not necessarily in the way you may think. While traditional forms of immigration have always served hospitality and tourism, there is a renewed segment in the immigration space that features firms who specialize in helping Canadian hospitality and tourism employers attract global talent. While this concept itself may not be particularly new, its emergence as an important tool for employers is one trend I predict will become a mainstay into the future. And one that will aid in building our competitive advantage.

Ask an Expert

To help understand the complexity and nuance of the world of attracting international talent to Canada’s tourism sector, I had the opportunity to sit down with an expert in the field, and a stalwart of the hospitality industry. Peter Carruthers is currently Executive Director, International Talent Recruitment, for a firm called AMK Global. Before becoming an international talent recruiter, Peter spent the better part of his life working in hospitality, specializing in the culinary arts, events, and catering. 

“Somehow my DNA planted a curiosity about food from a super-early age, and I was reading about “food as fuel” by my mid-teens: macrobiotics, South Asian, Indigenous American—a sponge for learning and an intuitive realization that food carried the story and culture of a people across the globe,” stated Carruthers. “An early opportunity landed in my lap to train as a chef in a private home and that was my first canvas for culinary expression. I self-trained and pretty much memorized Jacques Pépin’s ‘La Technique’. Thirteen years later, I transitioned with the same employer to managing an acapella ensemble’s three European tours, with an office in Holland. This built on the learned discipline that kitchens provided with the added exposure of travelling to and working in eleven different cultures. The world opened up.”

Returning to Canada, he blended his two passions—the culinary arts and event logistics—and started Presidential Gourmet Fine Catering, a catering company that eventually became a market leader in Toronto, with over sixty venues, where he worked for three decades.  

Changing Course

I asked Peter what drew him to work in the international talent recruitment world. “I love the idea of affecting change in people’s lives and grew up feeling proud of the Canadian view of the social benefits of multiculturalism. In my own professional catering kitchens, I deeply appreciated the many cultures that came together in creating a successful event.”

Peter met the founder of AMK Global late in 2019— San Mahajan, an ambitious, professional, and knowledgeable man on a mission. The more they spoke, the more they discovered that they could build opportunities in the realm of recruitment and immigration here in Canada. AMK Global now provides both immigration and recruiting services for hospitality and tourism across Canada and in the United Kingdom, another region suffering from an acute talent shortage.

New for 2023

“Immigration policies have eased considerably over the past year, prompted by a massive post-COVID gap in talent in many industries, but especially in ours,” Carruthers shared. “For example, some Canadian jobs which were previously categorized by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada as “unskilled” have now been redesignated as “skilled” jobs. This includes in-demand roles such as housekeepers or room attendants. Working as a third-party with Service Canada in the Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) system, we bring in candidates for those vital skilled positions. Cooks, as an example, have always been categorized as skilled. They too are in peak demand. This method of recruitment represents a whole new pool of talent for Canadian operators.”

Canada has set a target of welcoming 500,000 individuals annually for the foreseeable future through the various forms of immigration. Our country’s aging population, along with the global pandemic, have created this reality, especially since so many hospitality and tourism professionals left the industry and did not return.

On the demands facing employers, Peter reflected, “Employers need the help—kitchen, front of house, housekeeping, maintenance workers, dishwashers, and drivers—now, but the arrival process can be as long as eight months to land a worker in Canada, although it has improved in the past year, as Service Canada has invested more human resources into the system. Balancing this issue is best handled by realizing that since the challenge will still be around next year, we plan long-term hiring goals with employers. This is the true game changer for those who can look forward.”

Buyer Beware

I asked Peter about some of the negative stories we have heard in this field. He shared, “Nefarious players exist in every industry, and immigration and recruitment are no exception. When examples hit the news cycle of scenarios that have taken advantage of human beings, the damage is obvious. So it is key to work only with companies accredited and registered with the College of Immigration and Citizenship Consultants, to check references and allow due diligence to rule the day.”

 Carruthers shared some success stories. “A recognized and award-winning chef told me a week ago, ‘Your team has become the backbone of my kitchen: their attitude, skills, and reliability have all allowed me to focus—for the first time in years—on the bigger picture.’ An international hotel chain has created a process for dozens of locations across Canada where individual properties can sign on for personnel arriving over the next four quarters, saying ‘We’ve never engaged a process like this before, but it is the answer to the serious labour shortages in our entire organization.’ Things are really progressing well for those who have engaged in this work.”

As one example of an international talent recruitment firm, AMK Global offers a full solution to the industry, starting with offering live interviews with vetted candidates, having previously conducted testing in biometric checks, English proficiency, professional experience, and references.   

“We include complete management of LMIA processing, submission of work permits, and Immigration Canada processing. Once a worker has landed, they are here on a two-year closed work permit. This means they legally cannot leave their employer, which presents an incredible opportunity for engagement and retention. Once that period is over, they begin their pathway toward permanent residency in Canada, which is a major motivator in a new Canadian’s life. Service Canada mandates median wage is a minimum requirement; however, many employers elect to pay more than median wage. AMK Global maintains close contact with both the new employee and the Canadian employer, ensuring a good fit into the company culture.”

Recruitment Rundown

I asked Peter for his top advice as to why employers should consider using an international talent recruitment firm versus handling things themselves, along with any other helpful tips. He offered the following key takeaways:

  • Tackling the process of finding new talent seeking to come to Canada and completing the LMIA, work permit, and immigration paperwork is daunting and time consuming. Outsourcing this can assist employers by allowing them to invest these valuable hours on other aspects of their business.
  • Look for a firm that is registered with the College of Immigration and Citizenship Consultants, is professional and timely in their response, has a solid reputation, and offers local and national referrals.
  • Seek a supplier who has a broad reach and a presence in more than one international location.
  • Interview several firms to select the best fit for your organization.

Prepare for Landing

There was a time when Canada’s hospitality and tourism employers handled recruitment themselves. But as the job market started to tighten, we saw all types of head-hunters and recruitment firms begin to pop-up and we have never looked back. Recruiters are widely adopted in the industry and employers have come to accept that the cost of bringing top talent into the workplace is part of the cost of doing business.

For new reasons, the job market is tight again. As domestic pools of talent fade, thanks to new immigration policy and ambitious firms, there is an equal or greater increase in the pool of international talent. International talent recruitment firms may well become one of the keys to unlock the next normal for Canada’s tourism sector. We depend on our people. We should welcome them with open arms, regardless of their point of origin. Canada is their destination of choice. Our industry is an exceptional place to land.   

Joe Baker is a passionate leader within Canada’s tourism, hospitality and education sectors and a vocal advocate for a resilient, inclusive, future-forward industry. He is CEO of Joe Baker & Co., a human capital consultancy focused on strengthening hospitality and tourism organizations and people. Baker was dean at Centennial College’s School of Hospitality, Tourism and Culinary Arts where he led the most significant transformation in the school’s over 50-year history. He serves on the board of directors at Tourism HR Canada and Tourism Industry Association of Ontario.

Joe can be found everywhere @thejoebaker.

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