What a newcomer's journey to get a job in P.E.I can tell us
'It's been a rough ride, but I'm still here,' says Donette Johnson of 3 years on the Island
It was 2018, and Donette Johnson had just crossed the Confederation Bridge into Prince Edward Island. She turned to tap her friend, who was driving, on the shoulder.
"Stop, stop, stop."
She jumped out of the car and ran around. She looked over the water, breathing in the sea air.
"I am finally here," she thought.
Coming from Jamaica, Johnson was excited to come to the Island. It felt like home.
But she soon encountered a challenge she had not expected. She couldn't find a job, and she could not understand what was standing in her way.
Her education background was in finance, so she sent her resumé to some financial companies on the Island.
The response she often received was that the position had been filled. Then in another month or two, she would see the same job posting.
"I wondered, 'hey, what was that all about?' So I really don't know what [the employers] were looking for."
Johnson's experience is not unique — other people who have moved to Canada and found a home on the Island have also struggled to find a job that will sustain them. But groups working with them say there are strategies and tactics that can help employers and job-seekers alike.
Meeting and matching
Blake Doyle, the president of Island Recruiting, helps match employers and employees in the labour market. He said employers in P.E.I. aren't necessarily looking for education as the primary criterion, but instead skills.
He noticed P.E.I.'s economy has benefited a lot from large numbers of immigrants and international students coming to the Island in recent years.
But P.E.I. is a small market, so education and experience sometimes doesn't match the market's needs. Employees need to adapt, he said.
"In P.E.I. we don't have a large advanced manufacturing sector, we've got pockets of manufacturing and aerospace. So if you've trained in the educational field that doesn't [match], then, adapt your education," he said.
"You take your knowledge and apply it to the organization to work with using the skills you've attained through your education. I think anybody entering the market has to be adaptive to stay in this market this small."
Skills like communication are also important to create a good first impression with employers, he said.
"If you're not from the culture, and you're uncomfortable and [do not] come across as confident, sometimes an employer is looking for somebody who's got competence and is able to communicate that."
Donette Johnson agrees.
As she was struggling to find a job in P.E.I., she decided to take a course at UPEI to help newcomers improve their professional communication skills. She learned it's best to walk into a company, introduce yourself and then drop off your resumé in person, she said.
"The community here is so small that everyone knows everyone, so that's another way that one could possibly get in," she said.
She also contacted Immigrant and Refugee Services Association P.E.I. (IRSA) to use its services, which help newcomers to the Island integrate.
"In doing so, you're meeting other people as well and your network will grow. And that's a critical component here on the Island, given that it's so small," she said.
It comes down to relationships
Daniel Ohaegbu, executive director of Atlantic Student Development Alliance, said making connections is vital.
"It's not just who you know, it's who knows you. So that's why it's always good to network and build relationships," he said.
That's why Ohaegbu has been hosting monthly events to help international students and recent graduates build their networks and connect with local employers.
As a former international student and graduate of UPEI, he used to struggle to find employment because he didn't know many people. He hosts these events to make sure other international students don't face the same challenge.
Doyle agrees networking is crucial in a small place like P.E.I. However, COVID-19 has made that difficult, so people must now learn to network in a different way, he said.
"Networking now has become a less personal approach. You're using digital media and virtual communications and interactions. That's a different kind of skill set most people haven't adapted well to yet."
It's not just who you know, it's who knows you.— Daniel Ohaegbu
Eventually, Donette Johnson found a job at a local financial company, which matched her background.
She worked there for a year, then decided to do something different. She started researching what kinds of available jobs and skills were in demand on P.E.I.
"Some people come here thinking, I'm going to do a program I wanted to do from my home country. But then you come and you do that program here and find that you have no employment," she said.
"So as newcomers, you need to research and know what skills are needed in the province before you even pursue any studies."
Because she had previous experience in senior care, she got a job as a resident care worker — which helps her build more relationships.
"In P.E.I. you can't just say, 'I'm just going to do this one thing and focus on that,' because you do meet people in different areas of work. Even if you take on a job that you might not necessarily want to do, just do it, because you never know the connections you may make."
She also did some volunteering within the organization to meet different people.
How volunteering can open doors
Lindee Gallant of P.E.I. Community Navigators (PEICN) said volunteering is extremely crucial, particularly for newcomers to meet people and make connections. PEICN is a government-funded initiative providing assistance to newcomers to rural P.E.I.
She has done a lot of employment counselling to newcomers and found they don't have any connection to the community through volunteering, Gallant said.
"I recognize that newcomers have no idea how important it is here culturally."
Many newcomers have full-time jobs that might make it difficult for them to volunteer, but it helps pass their name around, she said.
"It's really important for newcomers to volunteer for events with the recognition that putting some time in for service of other people is going to benefit them," she said.
In September, Johnson started a job as a customer service representative for Access P.E.I. She's still in training and, so far, she enjoys it.
"Customers come in, each person has different scenarios, and you have to come up with solutions for them. It's not the regular, everyday processing or straightforward, so it's exciting."
All of the jobs she had before led her to the position she's in today, she said.
"It's been a rough ride, but I'm still here."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.