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Jobs of the Future: From ex-con to carpenter: how Community Builders is helping fill Northern Ontario’s labour gap

Non-profit group helping people on the edge find their way back to employment
Fred Oag has found meaningful work after incarceration with Community Builders, a non-profit organization that trains people in construction techniques.

Fred Oag isn’t shying away from his checkered past.

The Sudbury man made a series of troubling choices — for years, he struggled with a serious drug addiction, then ended up serving an eight-year sentence for manslaughter stemming from a violent altercation in 2014.

But in prison, Oag said, you’re confronted with two stark choices: turn your life around or end up dead.

Oag, with two young grandkids who barely knew him, opted to fix things. He served his time. Stayed sober. Looked for work. 

But that search wasn’t easy.

“I applied repeatedly for work all over the place,” Oag said. “But I couldn't find work, couldn't find anybody that wanted to hire an ex-con.”

While serving out the last few months of his sentence at a halfway house in Sudbury, Oag learned of Community Builders, a fledgling non-profit group in Sudbury willing to overlook his past — a barrier to employment — take him in, and retrain the former prisoner for the workforce.

“I met up with Kacey [Jewers] at the library. She didn't care what the problem was, as long as I wanted to work and wanted to succeed.”

After an interview with Community Builders, Oag signed up for their 12-week course, learning about construction site fundamentals and picking up some foundational skills for the workplace. 

“For me, it was more about interpersonal skills,” Oag said. “Eight years is a long time in prison; there's a lot of rough edges when you get out of jail.”

Oag said he had to re-learn everyday interactions. Dealing with authority figures, for example, can be a challenge for people who have served time. Adjustment is key.

“It doesn’t pay to be a nice guy in prison; it doesn’t help to get along with people,” he said. “It’s really easy to become institutionalized, to look at the world like it’s us-against-them.”

“But that’s not how it works out there on the site.”

Community Builders, a non-profit group with locations in Barrie and Sudbury, provides construction training and employment to vulnerable and at-risk populations. | Community Builders photo

Oag was part of the first cohorts at Community Builders. He said the first few days were a bit of a challenge — smoothing out those rough edges, getting back into a daily routine — as participants are expected to be ready for training every morning by 7:30 a.m.

But everyone involved in the program was on the same page.

Now, with just a few months left in his parole, Fred Oag is employed as a carpenter in North Bay — he was part of the $3-million renovation at Canadian Tire  — and ready to give back to the community.

“A lot of guys don’t make it through their parole,” Oag said. “Not unless they have a support system. Community Builders really helped me.”

Oag rings out a list of people who have helped him find his footing: people involved with the John Howard Society, a library employee who put him in the right direction, even his first foreman who made sure he had transportation to and from work.

From ex-con to apprentice carpenter in just a few months. 

But it began, Oag said, with a person — or a group of people — willing to take a chance on a man with a questionable past.

Community Builders a success story in Northern Ontario

Community Builders, with locations in Barrie and Sudbury, has made taking such chances part of its mandate. On its website, Community Builders describes itself as a “social enterprise, providing training and employment to meet the growing needs of the community’s most vulnerable and at-risk populations.”

The group takes on cohorts of people who face barriers to finding work, such as addictions, employment gaps, little formal education — or like Oag, a criminal record — and helps train them for jobs in the construction industry.

It’s a 12-week program that teaches them the fundamentals of the worksite and some basic introductions to common construction tasks, not to mention the soft skills that go along with working as part of a crew.

“For our clients, this is often the next step,” Carly Gasparini, Community Builders’ executive manager, told Northern Ontario Business.

“You do all the work to get yourself into recovery or to get secure housing, or get your life back to where you want it to be. Employment is the next natural step to finding purpose and to having a good income.”

How it works is this: a contracting group, like Raise The Roof, a non-profit aiming to build more affordable housing, will commit to a new project, like renovating existing units into secondary suites. They contact Community Builders to hire the people needed.

That could be framing, painting, drywall, or any number of hands-on skills needed in the construction industry.

Community Builders acts as a method of vouching for the graduates.

“By the time that 12 weeks of training is over, we can honestly say to private employers ‘Here's all the things that they've gotten access to do, and here’s what they're good at.’” 

So far, Gasparini said, the program has been a huge success.

“It’s going incredibly well,” Gasparini said. “Two cohorts ago, 100 per cent of our graduates were hired immediately. In this last cohort, all but two were hired straight out of the program, and those two were hired within three months.”

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Since the Community Builders program began, Gasparini said, their success rate of getting graduates hired hovers around 89 per cent. They currently have four full crews out doing work on a regular basis, with an expectation that those participants will soon be helping fill some labour gaps in the construction industry.

So far, Gasparini said the last two years has seen 31 people in Sudbury joining the ranks of the employed.

But it’s not just about charity or goodwill. Community Builders is leaning on people like Oag to plug some vital holes in the labour market. Many communities are struggling to find trades workers, and the group is hoping that providing more hands in the market will help spur construction.

The province estimates that Ontario will need 100,000 more construction workers to help deliver its infrastructure plans, including 1.5 million homes by 2031.

And it may come down to people like Oag, just a few months shy of being a free man, that help ease the pressure on home buyers, renters and looking for assisted housing.

“That was a nice thing about working with Community Builders,” Oag said. “At the end of the day, even if I was sore, I knew I was doing something good. Somebody was gonna get a place that they needed to live.”