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She started a program to help newcomers make connections. It helped hundreds find jobs


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Robyn Webb created a program to connect immigrants and international students with industry insiders who offer advice and direction. It’s a program that’s being replicated around the world. Webb is one of 12 Canadians the Star is profiling who are making our lives better.


HALIFAX—Thirty years into a successful business career, Robyn Webb can still empathize with those who are just starting out.


Her soft voice becomes a bit sombre when she talks about the social and financial pressure on the jobless and underemployed — people who may have families to support, or student debt looming over them.


Though it’s been decades since she faced a job hunt herself, she conjures the stress of it easily because every day she works with people who are in the thick of it.


For the past 14 years, Webb has worked for an economic development organization, the Halifax Partnership.


In the beginning, her clients were Halifax business owners. By virtue of the city’s middling size, many of those businesses were small, and Webb would help them plan and grow. Each business seemed to have its own unique needs, but one thing they all shared was the difficulty in finding the right people to fill their jobs.


“Over the years, no matter whether the economy was doing really well or not so great, one of the top three issues facing all businesses was finding the right talent,” she says.


But Webb knew the talent was available and looking — sometimes desperately — to fill those very spots. It was as if both sides were grasping around in the same dark room and Webb simply thought to flick on the light.


In 2009, she spearheaded the creation of a program that introduces job-hunters to people in their industry, starting with a group she believed was in most need of introduction: immigrants.


Now making those connections is the centre of Webb’s work, and she says helping individuals build the foundations of their careers is what gives her job meaning.


Since its inception, the Halifax Connector Program has helped more than 1,000 people find jobs in Halifax, and organizations in other cities have taken notice. Webb’s model has now been implemented in 35 communities across Canada, working with almost 5,000 newcomers.

Webb has shared her program with groups from Sweden and Switzerland, and earlier this year saw the launch of the Pittsburgh Connector Program in the United States.


She calls it “intentional networking.” While the ultimate goal is to find jobs for the job-hunters — or “connectees,” as Webb calls them — she doesn’t actually put them in touch with people who are hiring. Webb recruits industry insiders, or “connectors,” who can offer frank advice and direction.


“What we wanted them to do is just to have a connection, have a cup of coffee with a newcomer from the same industry, and let them learn a little bit about the industry: what the upcoming needs are, how do they fit into that, where are the opportunities?”


“And then the most important thing is that each connector that becomes part of the program agrees to provide three referrals into their business network. Then the connectee meets with those three and has the very same experience. So before long, that person now has 12 people looking for them, keeping an eye open for them, and seeing if there are opportunities coming up that they can connect them to.”


Connectors help newcomers navigate the job market in a new place with an unfamiliar culture. Webb says it can be especially hard for immigrants to find work, not because they’re unqualified, but because they don’t have access to the so-called “hidden” job market.


“A lot of (small businesses) don’t have an HR person,” Webb explains. “So how do they mitigate the risk when they’re hiring? It’s by picking up the phone and phoning a trusted person that they know and saying, ‘Do you know anybody?’”


If newcomers only know other newcomers, and perhaps some staff or volunteers at immigrant settlement organizations, then job prospects may seem scarce.


Recognizing that, Webb reached out to staff at the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS), the city’s largest immigrant settlement agency, and asked them to recommend people to be the program’s first participants.


They found 34 people who were “job ready,” which to Webb means their English is at a professional level and they have a post-secondary education.


She then sought out 34 professionals and matched them up.


“The very first connections that we made, we were very selective as to making sure the connectors that we brought on would be really dedicated to … making those three referrals, because that’s the key; we only make one match, so we really need to make sure that that person is engaged,” she says.


Webb attributes the program’s success to that careful scouting and preparation of connectors.


And almost a decade later, it seems to still be in practice, according to one connectee.


Abinaya Rajendran moved to Canada from India in September 2017. After a couple of months in Toronto — the only city in Canada she and her husband had any acquaintances (a couple of friends) — her husband landed a job in Halifax and they moved.


Although Rajendran’s resumé boasted a master’s degree in engineering and a few years of work experience from back home, she struggled to land a job in construction — her chosen field.


She submitted applications and dropped off resumés, unsolicited, but didn’t get any interest. It was perplexing to her because back in Chennai, India, that simple process was all it took.


“I got a call, I had an interview, and then I was selected and I got the job,” she says of her last job-hunting experience. “The majority of the jobs (in India) are, if there’s a job, it’s posted online and then you apply and you get the job.”


But credentials didn’t seem to be enough in Canada.


She applied to the Halifax Connector Program in early 2018 and was matched with a local engineer. As promised, that first connection spun off into more.


“It took some time, but I think having met these people I’m much more confident in my job search … because I know what a Canadian employer is looking for,” she says.


Rajendran is still looking for a full-time job, but in the meantime she’s on a short-term work placement in her industry until early 2019, and she’s training herself on software that’s regularly used by engineering firms in Canada.


She says she’s hopeful about finding something permanent in the near future, crediting her optimism to her connectors.


“They’re very accommodating. They respond and they really want to help you. So that’s something that’s really encouraging for a new person, for an immigrant. I think that’s important, that you know that there is a support system here,” she says.


Born and raised in Dartmouth, N.S., Webb speaks tenderly about the city of lakes where she also watched her kids grow up and paddle for sport.


But the depth of that fondness was cemented earlier, when she left for a short time in the early 1980s. She was newly graduated and moved to Lethbridge where her husband was going to school. Despite the business degree to her name, she struggled to find work.


It was a relief to return home to Nova Scotia after a year, where she started her career in earnest and put down roots.


She says that over the years she’s been offered jobs in other cities, but always turns them down.


It’s atypical for Maritimers to resist moving west. In the past few years, only an influx of international immigration has prevented Nova Scotia’s population from decreasing.


Webb says in a city like Halifax, in a province like Nova Scotia, where the population is aging and many industries are desperate for skilled workers, someone has to show people it’s viable to stay before they’re tempted to try their luck in another part of the country.


There’s a “small window” to attach people to the city, according to Webb, before necessity or ambition pull them away. She’s made it a personal mission to attach as many people as possible to her hometown by settling them into meaningful work.


With the initial success of the program for immigrants, Webb started thinking about how other groups could fit into her mandate.


New graduates are often in a similar position to newcomers: unattached, and eagerly looking for work. So within a year of launching the immigrant stream of the connector program, Webb invited international graduates to join.


Within a couple more years, a third stream was added for local graduates.


Bo Qin says without Webb’s program, it isn’t likely she would still be in Halifax.


She came here from China to study internetworking. After completing a master’s degree in 2016, she had all the right qualifications on paper — just like Rajendran — but soon found herself working part-time as a restaurant server.


“I just dropped resumés online and even dropped paper resumés in a company at the front desk, but it didn’t work,” she says.


As months went by, she started getting anxious.


A year had already passed since she graduated and Qin worried if she couldn’t find a job before her three-year work permit expired, she’d have to return to China.


Qin grew up in Shanghai — a city of about 24 million people — and says its vast size, the size of companies there and the fast pace of work and life were unappealing to her. “I prefer Halifax,” she says.


It was ISANS — the immigrant settlement agency — that referred Qin to the connector program last year.


Her first connector worked for a cybersecurity consultancy firm and recommended Qin sign up for a program to learn more computer languages. While she was in the midst of those studies this spring, the company her connector worked for started hiring.


Qin was thrilled to receive a call — and a job offer.


Ignoring for a moment the year of waiting and worrying, Qin’s hiring seems about as easy as can be — no cover letter, no formal interview, just a plum offer. But it was only because of the connection she’d made, and she doesn’t forget that.


Webb says the sooner one can start networking, the better. Which is why she’s now working on accepting immigrants into the program before they even arrive in Canada.


“When they get off the plane, they probably have three people to follow up with,” she says.


As Webb continues to push the boundaries of the program (next on the horizon is a connector app), more and more communities are taking notice.


She now spends a good amount of her time sharing the process nationally and internationally because she knows the challenges she sees in Halifax are universal.



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