Malika Jmila at the Sun Life offices in Toronto on July 7. FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Canadian companies aiming to improve work force diversity are increasingly using their student hiring programs as a key pipeline to bring in new Black talent and ensure those workers stick around.

A Globe and Mail survey of companies that signed on to the BlackNorth Initiative – a pledge launched in 2020 that challenges companies to raise their representation of Black workers – shows many have started making strides in Black student recruitment, with 41 per cent of companies reporting they met the target to hire at least 5 per cent Black students in 2021, up from 28 per cent the previous year.

But many still have a long way to go in bridging the gaps created by systemic inequality. Just 34 per cent of surveyed companies with more than 5,000 employees – including many of Canada’s largest companies – said they met the 5-per-cent goal in 2021.

The data comes from signatories of the BlackNorth Initiative CEO Pledge, which was launched in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd and global Black Lives Matter protests increased calls to acknowledge the lack of Black representation in corporate Canada.

As one of a series of public commitments, companies were asked to pledge that by 2025, Black students would represent at least 5 per cent of their internship and co-op hires.

This spring, The Globe surveyed all 481 companies that signed the BNI pledge by the end of 2021, following up on a similar survey last year. The 145 companies who responded represent just a small proportion of the business community, but the findings suggest many of Canada’s largest employers are taking a more deliberate approach to student hiring as a key part of their diversity strategies, and as a way to prepare young employees for future leadership positions.

“When you look at having a pipeline of talent for future executive roles, it all starts with the initial recruits, such as what we do with the summer program,” said David Noel, senior vice-president of global HR services at Bank of Nova Scotia, in an interview.

Among the companies committing to change is Sun Life Financial Inc., which has said it will provide 100 scholarships to fourth-year university students who self-identify as Black or Indigenous over the next five years, including a $5,000 contribution toward tuition, a summer internship at the company and dedicated career mentorship.

After awarding the first 18 of these scholarships this year, Sun Life’s Black student representation doubled to 8 per cent.

“I think this is the first step towards a tangible action to become more inclusive,” said Malika Jmila, a University of Windsor graduate student and one of the inaugural recipients of the Dean Connor Sun Life Inclusion Scholarships.

While the scholarship was one of the few she has seen that are specifically tailored for young people in her position, Ms. Jmila said she has noticed more attention on the issue since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“There are significant proven significant barriers for Black and racialized individuals when applying for jobs. But I feel like we’re coming upon a new understanding of what those barriers are,” Ms. Jmila said.

In their responses to The Globe’s survey, Rogers Communications Inc., Scotiabank and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce all said they hired more than 7 per cent Black students last year. Wealthsimple Technologies Inc., Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, National Bank of Canada and EY Canada also reported already meeting the 5-per-cent goal.

Of companies overall, 40 per cent were unsure of their student demographics from last year, including Interac Corp., Colliers, Telus Communications Inc., Manulife Financial Corp., Google Canada and The Globe and Mail itself. This is down from 50 per cent the year before, suggesting that while there has been some improvement, many companies are still not tracking race data.

Some companies said they had not yet reached 5 per cent in 2021, including the Business Development Bank of Canada, Deloitte Canada, Intact Financial Corp., KPMG’s Canadian branch, Stantec, and Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. Signatories have until 2025 to meet the five-year pledge.

Most companies only started their Black-student-specific recruitment focus after the summer of 2020, said Graham Donald, the founder of student recruitment advisory firm Brainstorm Strategy Group Inc.

Although Canadian firms were actively trying to recruit diverse students before the pandemic, he said, Black employees were often lumped into the category “visible minority,” which failed to recognize the specific experiences and challenges Black employees face. More recently, efforts have been more specific to their experience, Mr. Donald said.

In law firm Norton Rose Fulbright’s BNI submission to The Globe, communications director Barbara Timmins noted that “Competition for an already small [talent] pool is intense and sadly many talented individuals are forgoing corporate law, or Bay St. altogether.”

For some companies, the emphasis has been broadening the recruitment pool in order to find Black candidates.

Some companies have tended to recruit from particular feeder schools, but those institutions might be less accessible than others to Black students because of systemic barriers such as higher tuition, said Gwenna Kadima, a recruitment consultant with global tech consulting firm Accenture PLC.

Instead, Ms. Kadima said, her company is expanding to a wider range of schools for recruitment and building connections with varsity clubs that have a higher proportion of Black students.

While Accenture said in its BNI submission that at least 5 per cent of its student hires were Black, it did not respond to further questions about student demographics.

At those schools, Ms. Kadima runs a mentorship program to help prepare Black students for the rigid and rigorous application processes carried out by large employers, who often start as far as nine months ahead of time – something students without previous connections to corporate Canada might not be aware of, she said. So far, 140 students have participated in the program.

“It’s really about equipping them for those unseen rules of corporate Canada,” said Ms. Kadima. “Not just ready to interview, but having built their resumes in a way that will make them attractive candidates when it comes time.”

Some employers are trying another tactic: conducting student interviews and assessments with the aim of removing racial bias from hiring decisions.

Olivia Nuamah, national inclusion, diversity and belonging leader at PwC Canada, said her firm now emphasizes logic testing using games to determine a baseline of technical skill in order to bypass “culturally-loaded” questions. This year, 5 per cent of the students hired by PwC Canada were Black, up from 3 per cent three years ago, she said.

However, extending Black representation must go further than entry-level hiring alone. Mr. Donald at Brainstorm Strategy Group said that, in assessing companies, students tell him they are not satisfied seeing Black employees just at junior levels – they want to see them in decision-making roles, too.

“I think that’s one of the biggest challenges for these employers,” Mr. Donald said. “If they simply don’t have those people, then how can they represent it? They need to be prepared for some very difficult questions from young people and they need to be honest about their history.”

Ms. Kadima points to statistics from Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University) that show that Black leaders are deeply underrepresented on boards across Canada and are even outnumbered by other racialized groups. When it comes to racialized employees in general, she said, “a lot of companies don’t talk about their attrition numbers.”

According to the university’s 2020 Diversity Leads report, Black people held just 3.6 per cent of all board positions in Toronto despite comprising 7.5 per cent of the Greater Toronto Area population.

When it comes to changing company culture, PwC Canada’s Ms. Nuamah said that, when talking to colleagues, employees are encouraged to use words that reflect the reality of racial bias in the workplace: When words such as racism, discrimination, light-skinned privilege and dark-skinned disadvantage are avoided, she said, it makes tackling the underlying issues more difficult.

“It seems really small and trite. But if you are Black, it is rare not to have your experience couched in a bunch of words that don’t necessarily reflect the sharpness of the situation,” she said.

“We want to position ourselves as an organization that, while by no stretch of the imagination is even close to solving any of those issues, is certainly willing to have a pretty honest conversation.”

The Globe and Mail, August 1, 2022