When employees at Toronto’s World Service Cargo go to work, they sell products they never ship for funds that don’t exist to earn a paycheque they can’t spend.

“It’s very real to the individual,” said Christina Chu, the company’s program and service manager. That’s because the non-profit, government funded World Service Cargo is one of 41 Canadian “practice firms” — realistic simulated work environments that act as training grounds for emerging business professionals.

The concept, which originated in Germany, is practiced in Ontario, Québec, British Columbia and more than 40 countries worldwide, allowing employees to communicate and co-ordinate on a global scale with fellow faux-firms. Those enrolled are placed in a department befitting their qualification (provided they succeed in the real-world interview process), where they work full, 40-hour workweeks for upward of three months.

The format is ideal for new Canadians, said World Service Cargo marketing co-ordinator and program graduate Rahul Bhide, whose experience and past corporate culture is often rooted in the county from which they emigrated. “It gives you a chance to make sure your skills are current, to work in the Canadian work environment and actively look for a job.”

Chu said roughly a quarter of time on-the-job is spent seeking jobs, which Bhide said allows employees to learn from others’ job-hunting experiences. But there’s also hunting on the side of the firm itself, said operations manager Waleed A. Maguid, which takes shape in studying the job market to see what skills will make labourers most job-ready.

“If a company requires people to be ready with certain skills we don’t have, we implement them into our program,” said Maguid, “This will benefit companies hiring in the future, rather than them spending two or three months investing money and training (employees) in their systems.”

It’s that kind of pre-emptive orientation Annie Grenier, the Quebec-based general manager of the Canadian Practice Firm Network grouping of organizations, said will aid employees avoid hiccups once hired by actual companies.

“If you make a mistake while doing the paycheques for 100 people, in the real world it would be quite a problem. In a practice firm, it’s just virtual money,” she said. “We want to create an environment that’s as realistic as possible, but where there’s also time to make errors, reflect on them and learn from them.”

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