Making Words Count

by Christa Van Daele, Good Work News September 2003

Elena’s eyes light up with delight. After a five concentrated ninety minute sessions with a counsellor at The Working Centre at 43 Queen, the final copy of her resume that has been collaboratively sweated over for the past month is finally printed - a well earned destination. Both employment counsellor and career changer have scrutinized the resume carefully, not just once or twice, but many times. And what a resume it is. Elegant yet down-to-earth, Elena’s carefully crafted resume is intended to carry her forward into a professional career development path beyond the “survival job” level that she has been working at for several years in this community.

Elena is from Puerto Rico. In Canada, she has worked as a cleaner. But her professional experience and training in Puerto Rico actually qualifies her to be an office administrator, or an executive secretary. Now, she likes the new, clean words she sees on the page, words which accurately capture her past and her present, her values and her ambitions, in unapologetically assertive terms. Polished translations of transferable skills and pride experiences have been accomplished, translations aimed to reassure potential local employers that she has worked in environments and roles that are highly familiar to them, if only they would give her a chance. So, as she scrutinizes the arrangement of words and business expressions on her new Canadian resume, the flash of delight tells a story. It is a story about seeing her proven accomplishments, her motivated skills, captured in a strategic new way - a way that gives her a fighting chance away from the life of casual and temp jobs that have characterized life in Canada thus far.

Making words count, in many diverse ways, is a joint project of meaning- making. As such, warm relationships created around resume collaborations are everyday projects in the life of The Working Centre. Such meaning-making is carried out every day at meeting tables, and near computer terminals. Any employment counsellor can tell you that a well wordsmithed resume brings pleasure and satisfaction to both contributors while validating a special identity for one. As Elena builds confidence to tackle the future, a substantive new biography may well help her turn an important new corner in her life.

Yet, a well considered career development path that leads to professional employment in a New Canadian’s life takes time. Rather than one tidy resume, or one good job lead, the path takes many heads, hearts, and a continually renewed cycle of proposal writing for provincial and federal government program funds to build lasting “good work” foundations for the New Canadians who come daily to The Working Centre.

In Elena’s case, the assistance of a job developer from the region of Waterloo, dedicated computer instructors at The Working Centre, and a resume developer prepared to explore Elena’s professional life history in some depth have all contributed to her growing confidence about marketing her skills seriously next time around. It helps that her children are a little bit bigger, than her family’s settlement process is more complete, that she has a supportive church community. This way, Elena can attend more fully to a task as frustratingly unknown to her as the functional-style North American resume. “Our resumes were not at all like this, you see,” she states. “In Puerto Rico, we wrote pages and pages, and we just wrote down every job we had every had, and what our employers had to say about us, with long letters from them attached. Here, it is so different.”

In addition to reviewing her career prospects with a career coach, and upgrading Word and Excel proficiencies twice a week in the Customer Service Specialist Program at The Working Centre, Elena is a passionate contributor to her own family’s needs and to her church community. She works more than an exhausting double day. Ambitiously enrolled for the past several years in a range of advanced writing courses at Conestoga College, she has also attained her grade 12 at St. Louis recently, despite possessing this important credential and additional post-secondary training from Puerto Rico. “It’s a lot of work,” she explains. All of it is necessary, she has learned, to career advancement in this country. “I know I must do this,” she adds. “My written as well as my spoken English must be close to perfect, I know.” Elena’s outgoing strong nature, her bilingual Spanish-English fluencies, and her ready willingness to take on quickly paced office management roles make her an outstanding choice for any employer. “I like to work with people from all walks of life,” she says. “And, I like to be really busy. I do not like to be bored.”

Many friends and supporters of The Working Centre are certainly aware of the hard-working and well-qualified New Canadians everywhere in our midst in Kitchener-Waterloo. The Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, and the K-W Record have all publicized stories within the past several years to help build public awareness of those whose advanced skills and training skills are critically overlooked in our economy. Yet, few may be in touch with the hard everyday realities of career advancement, the persistent string of disappointments that individuals such as Elena must continually ignore in order to keep pushing forward into decent-paying, improved job prospects.

Elena works fourteen hours day to get it all done, on top of her domestic chores and her extensive volunteer work. For instance, in order to “build” a new resume, treating words like well-made Lego bricks that can be moved around as necessary, she must work industriously after her computer classes on resume development tasks assigned by her coach, complex tasks by no means easy to complete. As well, she must be willing and able to experiment continually with sophisticated English language tools to catalogue correctly the new skills she acquiring in her office setting work placement that the Region of Waterloo has set up on her behalf.

As Elena and hundreds of others settling in central Ontario articulate their own progress at The Working Centre, she has been willing to make words count to accurately capture a new cultural reality. Language effort and the building of a new life have proceeded hand in hand. She has been willing to harmonize old and new ways of looking at things, to assess the terms of her present life pragmatically, while retaining the special promises and meanings of the old. New words, new expressions, and collaborative acts of meaning - making in a safe environment are integral to this process. It is a process not without risk. As an act of faith and hope, Elena is willing to dream. She will be looking to the community to receive her best efforts, as she moves away from survivor work to her hoped-for destination.

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