Monday, September 17, 2012

Working the Night Shift: A Security Officer's Story

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Night shift as security officer, a survival job for many immigrants

After working for two years as a security officer, Thomas Menyoli decided to quit and go back to school. “I was doing the night shift for two years and I just couldn’t cope with it any longer and decided to take a break,” he says.

Menyoli came to Canada in 2006. He is originally from Cameroon where he had his own electronic business; he has also worked in Europe. Menyoli is among the thousands of skilled immigrants from around the world who become security officers upon arrival in Canada.

Increasingly, private security is a preferred option among newcomers, who haven’t been able to find work in their own field.

How do I know?

I have first-hand experience — for the last six months, I have been working as a security officer myself. After two months of futile attempts to get a job in the media (my profession for two decades prior to immigrating to Canada from India in July 2008), I had little choice but to take up a job as a security officer.

I did a two-day security basics training course at Iron Horse Security (the private security industry in Canada is regulated) and started working at Paragon Security in September 2008. I was deployed as a concierge at a condominium on St. Clair Avenue West, in Toronto.

Ryan Dow, client service and business development manager with Iron Horse, says, “Yes, it is true that the security industry is attracting a lot of new immigrants.” And Dow thinks this trend will continue in the future.

According to a justice system-focused periodical from Statistics Canada called Juristat, in 2006 there were about 102,000 private security personnel in Canada and the industry takes in 20,000 new recruits every year, many of whom are visible minorities.

Analyst Geoffrey Li, writing in the December 2008 issue of Juristat, notes: “The representation of visible minorities among police officers and private security personnel (nearly) doubled between 1996 and 2006 — from 11 per cent to 21 per cent.” Significantly, Li emphasizes, “The proportion of visible minorities among security officers exceeded that of the overall proportion of visible minorities among the population of Canada.”

Juristat also reports that nearly 50 per cent of the security officers are above the age of 45 years and 25 per cent are above 55 years of age.

Michael Kersting belongs to this age group. He’s 65 years old and works as a security guard, even though he’s a trained architect and an award-winning poet. Kersting immigrated to Canada from Guyana, and worked for a brief while as an architect, but mostly as a security officer.

So what is it that lures newcomers like Kersting to this industry? The answers are rather simple. Facing barriers to finding employment in their area of expertise because of a lack of Canadian experience and credentials, newcomers turn to survival jobs out of desperation. Some work as telemarketers at call centres, others as maintenance workers, still others as security officers.

But working in security is often considered a better choice than doing pressure sales over the phone or cleaning toilets. In the security business, expectations from the new recruit are mostly limited to physical presence.

It seemed the better choice for me. Although wages are low (around $9-12 an hour in the first year), it’s enough for survival and paying bills.

And in its own way, the job has taught me some new skills, like staying calm in a crisis. It’s one thing to sit in training and hear about the best method to deal with an emergency and another to answer a real-life crisis, for example, walking into an apartment to see an 80-year-old woman sprawled on the kitchen floor, bleeding from the forehead and unable to get up.

Mike Odongkara, a photojournalist from Uganda who became a security officer after having no luck finding a job in journalism, adds that while security work really doesn’t test one’s full abilities, “it’s not something that one should discount completely. For me, it helped in just understanding the different aspects of life and living in Toronto,” observes Odongkara, who arrived in Canada in 2005.

“It teaches the newcomer the technique of interacting with complete strangers.”

It’s good to stay positive and look for the good in a bad situation like Odongkara, but working as a security officer can still take its toll on skilled immigrants.

“The biggest adjustment that one has to make as a guard is mental. One has to accept one’s station in life as a security officer,” Samuel Varghese says. Originally from India, Varghese came to Canada from Muscat and, like so many others, couldn’t find a job in his field of accounting.

“I did this [get a job as a security officer] so that my family could start life in Canada,” says Varghese, who works the night shift.

But he quickly adds that he won’t be doing this work for long. An experienced accountant, Varghese plans to enrol into a community college to get a Canadian certificate to bolster his chances of getting a job as an accountant.

Brian Robertson, president of Toronto-based Diligent Security Training and Consulting, observes in an opinion piece in Canadian Security (January 2009) that most newcomers who become security officers leave their job as soon as possible, often within the first six months. This is the industry trend and the reason is obvious.

At the same time as newcomers work in security, they also continue to look for employment opportunities in their own field, and some of them, like Varghese and Menyoli, enrol in a Canadian educational program.

“As soon as they find something better in their own field, they dump the security job,” says Shawn Foote, a Canadian veteran of 18 years in the security business, adding, “Almost all those who become security officers don’t plan a career in the vocation.”

Brian Davis, a blogger on the private security industry in Canada, recently anguished about the state of the security business in Canada. Davis argues, “The level of customer service and quality is appalling … [because] in most cases security workers do not understand their responsibilities to the customer or the public. Why? They are often under-trained, unqualified and unhappy.”

Often it’s a matter of not realizing what the job will actually be like. Robertson of Diligent Security Training and Consulting, wryly comments, “It is easy to find a security officer in Canada who will tell you that the job he ended up in was different from the job he was told that he was signing up for when he or she was recruited. It may be harder to find a security officer who didn’t have this experience.”

He adds, “Every year the contract guard industry in Canada takes in over 20,000 new hires. There is a lot of turnover in contract security, and recruiting new officers is a Sisyphean task. There are a lot of reasons why it is difficult to attract good people to security. The pay is low, the hours are often lousy, and the working conditions range from mind-numbingly boring to nerve-wrackingly dangerous.”

But with the economic slowdown, security industry insiders say it is quite possible that the security industry — which is seemingly recession proof — will continue to attract more and more professionally qualified people, and this time around, they may not all be immigrants.

Every night when I leave for my site to begin my shift I ponder, “Is this what I came to Canada for?” Every morning when I return home and see my son’s face, I stay determined that I’ll do what it takes to survive and succeed here — even if it means patrolling a damp and bitterly cold parking lot in the dead of night.


(Copyright belongs to Canadian Immigrant, a subsidiary of Toronto Star Newspapers Ltd.)

Posted by Chanelle Boudreau at 12:15 PM

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