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Labour + Industry

Looking for Work

As unemployment rises in BC, Surrey's mega job fair is a magnet for hopes and frustrations.

Justin Langille 23 Jul

Justin Langille is a Vancouver-based journalist with a focus on the landscape of work.

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Job seekers at the annual PICS job fair in the North Surrey Recreation Centre. Photo: J. Langille.

The line only went one way.

It weaved around the block, under the Surrey Central Station Skytrain tracks, past a strategically placed fire truck and through the foyer of the North Surrey Recreation Centre and arena.

People stood five abreast, juggling bottles of water and envelopes full of résumés. A father in a sharply pressed, short-sleeved, plaid shirt had brought along his young son, who played quietly while they shuffled along.

The 10 a.m. queue lead into an arena usually given over to playing hockey, though this morning the floor was bare of ice. As the line moved forward, hundreds of job searchers stepped onto the rink, prepared to compete.

They had come to this teeming work fair at a telling moment in the 2010 B.C. economy. The date was July 8. The next morning, a Statscan labour survey would be released revealing that unemployment in Canada had dropped to 7.9 per cent nationally by June, but the number of unemployed British Columbians had grown to 7.8 per cent from 7.5 per cent from May to June this year.

Full-time jobs in B.C. grew by 13,200 positions in that time, but 6,800 part-time positions were lost, according to the survey report.

The most significant declines were seen in the service sector.

Employment in transportation and warehousing declined 4.5 per cent while jobs in business, building and support services dropped by 4.1 per cent.

In the goods producing sector, construction jobs rolled back by 2.7 per cent while agriculture receded by 2.3 per cent.

At the rec centre this morning, talk of abstract statistics was missing from the conversation.

One was the only number that most people were concentrating on.

People wanted one good first impression, one job, and, eventually, the first one of many paycheques.

Who's at the fair

"I didn't think so many people were out of work," said Laurie Smith, a Surrey admin assistant who had been looking for full time work since October 2009.

"You think you're the only person."

Some 6,000 were expected to show up to speak with 100 organizations renting tables and booths.

As the morning wore on, more and more people flooded the aisles. The booths of Safeway, Canadian Forces, Canada Revenue Agency and B.C. Corrections were getting heavy traffic.

But potential employers occupied only about a third of the floor space. The majority of vendors were there to offer services to the unemployed. There were firms selling first aid instruction, driving lessons, forklift certification, ESL programs.

Social services for new Canadians, Worksafe, ICBC and others also were there to offer help and information to the jobless.

Beneath a Surrey Minor Hockey sign bearing the message "It's better to build a boy than mend a man," the most eager were gathered, scribbling down their contact information on small forms for potential employers.

There were few spaces to sit down and write, so people leaned up against the boards and the glass marked with the black scuff of pucks from hockey seasons past.

'We're exposing them to employers'

At one end of the rink, Charan Gill greeted well-wishers and took part in a group photo. Gill is CEO of Progressive Intercultural Community Services (PICS), which was sponsoring, for the sixth year running, this annual job fair in Surrey. Gill is a farm labour organizer with decades of experience in Metro Vancouver activism. He expressed confidence that the fair would benefit immigrants, non-immigrants and those just looking to upgrade their employment status.

"Everybody may not get a job, but... we're exposing them to the prospective employers," says Gill. "They will have a good experience."

That wasn't the case for Norm McKenzie.

A former restaurateur with a family and about to turn 50, Mackenzie was looking to land a solid job with a reputable company like BC Hydro or BC Ferries.

Both companies were listed on the flyer, but they weren't here, he said.

He said he wouldn't feel confident approaching the RCMP table to talk to them about training opportunities. And he knew that he needed to make more than Safeway would pay him.

"I think I'd be better off going through Craigslist," McKenzie said.

Plan A, plan B

As the hours dragged on and the room heated up, water coolers positioned around the boards like referees developed pools beneath them.

"We're hiring for outside sales positions," said a representative from the Surrey Now as she looked over a neatly dressed man's résumé.

He waited eagerly as her eyes scanned his credentials through her black frame glasses.

"Perfect," she said, stretching out the word as she nodded, eyes now dour and her mouth almost frowning. "Thank you."

Just down the way, a representative with a non-profit community services organization, Pacific Community Resources Society, counselled a new Canadian on getting a foot in the door of the construction industry.

"If you want construction experience, volunteer," he said to the man, nodding attentively with a backpack slung over one shoulder.

"Habitat for Humanity. They're in Burnaby. Here, I'll give you the address. If they see you working, they might say 'Here!' And give you a job!" the rep exclaimed.

Pat Christie, coordinator of the mentor program at Abbotsford Community Services, said that for many job seekers, especially new Canadians, mentor programs like hers, which provide people with unpaid workplace experience, are the best place to start.

She matched new Canadians with professional training from other countries with Canadian professions. It's a four- to six-month program meant to give people a direct chance to be exposed to the workplace they want to be in and an opportunity to avoid being underemployed in positions below their education level.

They won't be fostered into specific positions. For many of her clients, their experience might be a taste of their "plan A" careers while they work in their "plan B" jobs.

Christie shared what she heard from other prospective employers before the doors opened this morning. "They say, 'We won't even look at them until they're credentialed."

Landscaping, construction, whatever...

A breeze found its way through the room as the crowd thinned out and the air became a bit easier to breath.

Toddlers lay fast asleep in strollers, pushed along by parents, maneuvered past men toting briefcases and groups of teenage girls chatting.

Walking over the sea of discarded flyers and brochures that littered the floor, Mohammed Vhiragsherma looked more lively than most around him.

He was new to Canada and the B.C. job market.

Impeccably dressed in a pink polo shirt and pressed grey pants, he was optimistic about his experience at the fair even though he'd seen no immediate prospects.

With a background in finance and accounts from India, he knew that this wasn't exactly where he needed to be to get into his field, but it was a start.

He'd applied to begin a certified general accountant program and is waiting while his credits are transferred and he finds out what courses he needs to take to get his Canadian credentials.

"It's good there are some good job opportunities," Vhiragsherma said. "A lot is possible from this."

"It's welcoming here."

Other newcomers to the B.C. job market weren't in agreement.

"It's not what I was expecting," a man who wished to remain unnamed told me as he lifted a broad-brimmed baseball hat, airing his sweaty brow.

"I was expecting probably they would tell you 'Fill out this paper out, we're gonna hire you right now, you're gonna start on Friday.'"

Originally from Nigeria, he said he was educated as a lab technician.

To work in his field, he knew that he needed to transfer his credentials to a Canadian diploma, but it all takes money; money that he doesn't have and needs to earn fast.

In the meantime, he'll work anything, he told me. Landscaping, construction... whatever.

He's spending time with caseworkers at GT Hiring Solutions in Surrey to find temporary work, but the process was too leisurely for his liking.

"I was planning on coming in... 'I'm gonna get a job today."

"Canada is a lovely place. It's just like the place is slow right now for work."

'An easier transition'

PICS worker Saad Khan is a history major about to graduate from SFU. He wants a job with the government developing policy that will better the situation for educated people immigrating to Canada.

"At PICS, everyday we have skilled immigrants who are working at jobs that are pretty menial. Which is not to denigrate the jobs, but, if you're used to working as an engineer and then you're a cashier and you can't do anything else, it makes you think these people are not stupid, obviously."

"There needs to be an easier transition."

As the fair wound down, only a few firefighters remained, milling about their truck and laughing with a security guard under the shade of a tree.

A stream of job seekers left the community centre's open doors with folders in hands and walked towards the steps leading to the Skytrain.

No one billed the PICS annual "mega" job fair as a place where anyone who walked in would find a job. For most it offered a bit of human contact, a serious look in the eye, a chance to take some action besides combing through Internet job listings.

Those who failed to find work at least were offered a chance to meet people in the same situation, to know they were not alone in an economy that's giving out fewer chances.  [Tyee]

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