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As baby boomers retire and the traditional labour pool shrinks, the construction industry is focusing on alternative workforces. Canada’s young, fast-growing Aboriginal population is an attractive proposition for an industry eager to engage the next generation.

By Lisa Gordon

For years, analysts have sounded the alarm about the coming retirement of the baby boomers and how their exit from the workforce will impact the Canadian economy.

According to a special report published in  e Globe and Mail in November 2015, Canadian labour market growth is expected to stagnate in the 2020s as retiring boomers create vacancies that employers will struggle to fill, keeping real economic growth below two per cent annually over the next decade. Add to that the country’s declining birth rate, and it’s clear that something must be done to tap into and develop new labour sources.

Many in the construction sector have turned their attention to the country’s Aboriginal communities – including First Nations, Metis and Inuit people – who combined represent the fastest growing, youngest segment of the Canadian population. According to an article published by Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. of B.C., it is estimated that more than 600,000 Aboriginal youth will enter the labour market between 2001 and 2026.

It’s an opportunity that offers a lot of potential, according to Rosemary Sparks, executive director of BuildForce Canada, a national not-for-profit construction industry organization.

“We start from the premise that in our industry, we’re going to lose 250,000 on-site construction workers to retirement over the next 10 years,” she said. “It’s extremely important that the industry plans for that loss, and continues to recruit, train and retain the next generation.”

Aboriginal people represent only 3.7 per cent of people who work on construction job sites in Canada, according to Sparks, who said this is “a relatively untapped pool of individuals that industry should be engaging.”

Large-scale construction projects in Canada, particularly natural resources-based job sites, are often located in the most remote regions of the country. Hiring local Aboriginal workers makes sense in many ways, says Sparks, who calls the arrangement a “win-win” for both workers and the companies that employ them.

Not only are Aboriginal workers available in all parts of the country, but locally sourced employees are more likely to stay on the job for the long term. Additionally, providing job opportunities to Indigenous applicants fosters productive partnerships between Aboriginal communities and industry, and improves the local economy.

Currently, about one in nine Aboriginal workers earns a living in a construction-related job, and Sparks said they exhibit a higher propensity to move into construction careers compared to their non-Aboriginal counterparts. It’s an area that certainly merits exploration and development.

Showcasing talent
Glen Strong is community relations and training coordinator at Points Athabasca, a contracting company owned by the seven Aboriginal communities of Northern Saskatchewan’s Athabasca Basin. Known as a rich source of uranium deposits, the region is also home to a harsh climate and a population that is about 90 per cent Aboriginal.

Headquartered in Saskatoon, Points Athabasca was founded in 1999 to capitalize on northern Saskatchewan’s economic development. As an arm of Athabasca Basin Development – a unique partnership between the three First Nations communities of the region as well as the four provincial communities – Points Athabasca’s mission is simple: build capacity by providing opportunities to hire Aboriginal workers from the regions where it works, and to leave behind a legacy of education and training once the job is done.

“Recently we’ve continued to develop the uranium mines in Northern Saskatchewan and diversified to a lot of capital construction jobs throughout the rest of the province,” said Strong. “We excel in site service work; not only is it a great service for our clients, but we’ve also had a lot of success in building capacity through this type of work.”

Strong said contracting jobs are usually filled by accessing a database of workers supplied by Athabasca Labour Services. If suitable candidates aren’t found, Points Athabasca can access other lists through related partner organizations.

When it comes to hiring an Aboriginal workforce, Strong says there are many benefits.

“These folks are hard workers. You have to see them in their own setting to really experience that,” he said, adding that Aboriginal people are intelligent, resourceful, innovative and adaptable. “I don’t think they’ve shared their skills enough with the world. We are a showcase for their talent; we will work with the Aboriginal workforce and we’ll get the job done. We work with them because we believe in them.”

Scott Powell, manager of public a airs for Manitoba Hydro – where 45 per cent of the northern provincial workforce is Aboriginal – agreed that Indigenous hiring programs provide a win-win solution to staffing shortages.

“Among other things, we get the quality labour we need,” he said. “Community members receive job experience, training and employment, and communities themselves see spin-off benefits from increased spending in local and regional businesses.”

Manitoba Hydro currently offers several ongoing initiatives designed to foster successful careers for Aboriginal employees, including pre-project and on-the-job training programs, preferential hiring practices on northern jobs and pre-placement opportunities in line and electrical trades training.

“We require a tremendous amount of labour, products and services as we maintain and build Manitoba’s electrical and natural gas infrastructure,” said Powell. “Engaging Indigenous communities in a positive way is vital to enhancing working relationships.”

Connections and culture
Everyone who spoke with Piling Canada agreed that the first step in launching a successful Aboriginal hiring initiative is establishing a solid partnership with local communities.

“One of the biggest mistakes is when companies come in and don’t involve the local people,” said Strong. “It’s imperative that the leadership of the region is notified that you have opportunities for local people. Consult with them so they know you’re there with intentions of bringing some wealth to the region.  at’s important; to achieve success in building capacity, it’s important to start by developing a relationship.”

Once that connection has been established, it’s time to work with leaders and other organizations to find, recruit and train qualified applicants.

“We don’t want to hire people and then lose them; we want to set them up to be successful,” said Sparks, who recommended going through the Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training Strategy (ASETS) program to find local organizations that can connect employers with Aboriginal youth looking for work.

On-the-job training is often provided by contractors, although Powell says that Manitoba Hydro has also worked with local communities to implement more extensive pre-project training for the local labour force.

“Education is one of the things Points Athabasca stands behind,” agreed Strong. “It’s no longer the way it was in the old days where you were competing against your neighbouring community. No, you are competing against the whole world now. You’ve got to be at the top of your game.”

Contractors who plan to hire Aboriginal workers, especially in the north, must also realize that some unique cultural considerations will be at play.

“Aboriginal people in remote areas have a different lifestyle than in urban centres,” said Strong. “For example, for a couple of weeks in July, everything in the Athabasca communities shuts down and it’s pretty hard to get anything done. And Aboriginal people often have a different concept of family – so sometimes a death in the family will not be what companies would consider a close relative, but in their culture, is someone very close to that person.”

Caribou hunting season and harvest gathering times are other occasions when workers may need time off. Strong advised employers to be upfront about discussing time away from work.

“Ask workers in advance when they feel they will need some time o , and maybe work out some paid and unpaid absences,” he said.

Achieving excellence
Strong believes each and every one of Canada’s Aboriginal workers has the ability to achieve excellence – it’s just a matter of giving them the tools they need to realize their potential.

“We can be the best in the world; we really can,” he concluded enthusiastically. “The Mohawks are famous for being the best ironworkers, fearless and agile. I fully expect and promote that as we develop our Aboriginal workforce, people will come back and say ‘I want those guys, they’re the best.’”

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Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.