Highline Mushrooms: Intentional Inclusion is Good Business

With the right supports and inclusive workplace, a survival job can become permanent for newcomers. Some will leave and move on to other opportunities. But, many stay. A company can create the conditions crucial to creating that loyal workforce. Nowhere is that more evident than in agriculture.

The agricultural sector is Canada’s third largest industry. But, it’s chronically understaffed, relying on temporary foreign workers to round out their workforce. In Southwestern Ontario, Highline Mushrooms isn’t different. Canadian-born workers are not flocking to work in agriculture. But, Highline has found willing workers in newcomers.

Susan McBride Friesen, Highline Mushroom’s Director of Human Resources, finds newcomers, including refugees, coming into the community are more connected with the land and farming. They’re more willing to go into agricultural jobs.

She says “We’ve always hired immigrants [at High Mushrooms]. It’s always been our practice to recruit and hire a very diverse group of people.” A lot of people land at Highline for their first job. Friesen says a newcomer might be with Highline Mushrooms for 10 years before they move on. It takes time to develop English skills, save money, perhaps bring their family over. Using the job as stepping stone? “We’re OK with that. We’re OK with people bettering themselves and growing and being part of our team for however long they work. They’ve made us better for the time they’ve spent with us.”

At the same time, she says many newcomers have established themselves as part of the Highline family. “We have managers who started here as Harvesters when they landed. They have stayed with us for their entire careers and are in leadership positions. In some cases their children also work at Highline. A current Supervisor’s father started as a Harvester when he first arrived in Canada. It’s multigenerational.”

Intentional inclusion means making the effort

Friesen comes across numerous people who have had their start at Highline and have gone on to other success. At a recent career path session hosted by a community partner, Multicultural Council of Windsor and Essex County, former refugees told their story of inclusion. Working as full time Highline Mushroom Harvesters, they learned English, and eventually asked for part time work to go back to school. Highline accommodated them. Now they’re nurses, social workers, settlement workers.

It’s why Highline Mushrooms received an Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) 2016 Employer Award for Refugee Employment. These former workers recounted how Highline Mushrooms supported them, supported their further education and growth. They’ve never forgotten how much support they received.

Friesen describes the various ways Highline Mushrooms works to ensure their newcomer workforce is included. Decent health benefits, a pension and retirement plan all help people to establish themselves in Canada. Highline Mushrooms also offers part-time and summer work to children of their workers. They have a family scholarship program for children of their workers. A quick look at the list of 2015 recipients speaks to the diversity of their workforce.

When it comes to language, Friesen says, “You need to learn the language, you need to become part of Canadian culture. Our workforce demographics are very mixed and diverse. English is essential as the common language of communication.”

So, Highline offers English classes. In Leamington, classes are offered on the farm, tailored around production schedules. Many workers access the classes. Community partners translate safety policies, newsletters, any information and policies that workers need to know. These all become part of the English curriculum. While workers learn English, they also learn about safety, HR policies and more related to their day-to-day work. With Highline’s diverse workforce, workers help interpret or translate for others on the job.

All of these supports influence a newcomer’s decision to stay and become part of the company for the long term.

Highline’s relationships with community partners have become more and more important. They work with community agencies to provide employment opportunities to any newcomers who are interested. Leamington will welcome 125 Syrian refugees in 2016. Highline let community partners know that they are an employer that will embrace the Syrians and support their transition to Canadian society. They’re having discussions about how Highline can help get workers to the job (a challenge for a rural company).

When asked why Highline Mushrooms makes such an effort, Friesen says it’s really quite simple: “It’s a benefit to you and your organization to hire newcomers. They bring strong worth ethic, diversity that only makes you better as an employer. The gratitude and work ethic are unbelievable. You know that your company is about more than just making money. As a business and a business leader, it’s very important to invest in your community. Helping new Canadians integrate into Canada is an awesome way of contributing to our communities.”

For Friesen, the benefits extend well beyond the workplace. She says that embracing diversity breaks down barriers, builds empathy and reduces prejudice.

Tips for employers:

  • Build language classes around your employees’ schedules, running them in-house, if possible.
  • Recruiting and hiring is an intensive process. But, don’t stop investing there. To become an employer of choice, with a loyal workforce, means providing the supports necessary for the workers you are recruiting. They may be different for newcomers.
  • Community connections and relationships are essential to raise your profile as an employer of choice.
  • Community groups, even outside of your city, can provide a pipeline to new talent. Connect and work with them.

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