It’s not easy finding employers willing to take on apprentices. It’s even harder when a company is hesitant to work with an Aboriginal organization.
But Ron Sarazin and the team at Gezhtoojig Employment & Training are working to make inroads with industry, forming partnerships with companies that can benefit from the large pool of indigenous people who want to work.
“We want to make sure that they have fair access to these jobs, not just because they’re Native but because they’re bringing skills to the table,” Sarazin said.
“That’s our focus: to make sure that we create a job-ready client for industry.” Based in Sudbury, Gezhtoojig offers programming under the federal government’s Aboriginal Skills Employment Training Strategy (ASETS) to help people of Aboriginal descent gain the skills they need for employment, including education upgrading, basic skills and literacy programs.
Its catchment area includes Dokis, Henvey Inlet, Magnetawan, Shawanaga, Temagami, Wahnapitae and Wasauksing First Nations, but it also serves clients from Sudbury, Parry Sound, Manitoulin and North Bay.
Amongst its suite of programs designed to get clients ready for the job market, one of the most successful is the apprenticeship program, which places clients with employers in a variety of trades.
Especially with mining booming, there are plenty of opportunities for Aboriginal people to work, but young people aren’t taking advantage of the opportunities apprenticeships can afford them, Sarazin said.
“We come from a culture of apprenticeship,” he said. “You learned how to hunt, you learned how to skin, you learned how to build a canoe—you learned how to do that by your grandfathers or your fathers. That’s the way it was taught, but we don’t have enough people in apprenticeships right now; we’re lacking that connection.”
Some companies are reluctant to work with Aboriginal organizations like Gezhtoojig because they don’t know how to interact with Aboriginal people, something Sarazin calls “unfortunate.” He wants to strengthen partnerships, break down communication barriers and work hand in hand with industry to start training Aboriginal youth now for projects that are coming down the pipe five or 10 years from now.
To facilitate this, the organization has just hired a job developer is to work with industry to match employers with clients.
Better cultural understanding is needed, on both sides of the equation, for the relationship to change, Sarazin said. Some clients still encounter racism in the workplace, and in other cases, there is a cultural disconnect between the client and the employer.
In job interviews, for example, some clients won’t make eye contact with interviewers because it’s considered a sign of disrespect in their culture. But to the interviewer, the client seems disinterested and, though he might have great credentials, he’s cut from the list of job candidates.
“What we’re trying to do is prepare people for the jobs, but also make networks and partnerships that are better connected,” he said.
Many youth fear that leaving their communities will weaken their connection to their community and their culture. But Sarazin said that “the light goes on” when youth see workers returning with money in their bank accounts that can be spent on a home, a vehicle, a snowmobile and more. It provides a tangible example of what apprenticeships can do.
“(Workers) can always come home, they can maintain their homes there, they can maintain their lifestyle of hunting and fishing, and the apprenticeship affords them that,” he said.
Gezhtoojig is currently developing a database that would catalogue job-ready Aboriginal workers in north central Ontario that would be accessible by companies seeking skilled workers. Ideally, Sarazin said, companies would be able to call an 800 number with their needs and Gezhtoojig would follow up by sending them the resumes of eligible workers.
Based on a program designed following the moratorium on cod fishing, the database would encompass workers from an area stretching between North Bay, Timmins, Sault Ste. Marie, Manitoulin and Orillia. All Local Delivery Mechanisms like Gezhtoojig would enter data into the system and make it easily accessible to employers.
“We’re really trying to open doors with employers,” Sarazin said. “All we’re trying to do is make sure there’s equal opportunity.” The database is expected to be up and running by the fall.