Employers Suncor, Statistics Canada reach out to Native communities

Employers have to be prepared to do as much career counselling as recruiting
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/20/2004


or the past five years, Statistics Canada has been working toward a goal of making three per cent of its workforce Aboriginal Canadian. Some progress has been made, but there is a long way to go, says Claire Thie, Aboriginal recruitment officer.

A November 2001 government job fair held solely for Native jobseekers produced 18 new hires. And since 1999, the federal agency has been running a two-year Aboriginal internship program intended to give students an introduction and firm grounding in conducting surveys.

Graduates of the program are encouraged to go back to the community to apply their knowledge, but by running the program consecutively, Statistics Canada effectively improves the Aboriginal representation in the workforce. To attract more applicants to the program, Statistics Canada partnered with Aboriginal Link, a Kenora, Ont.-based company dedicated to marketing to Aboriginal communities across Canada, mainly by fax. The best way to reach the largest possible number of Aboriginal candidates is a job posting faxed to a reserve and pinned up on the community bulletin board, she says.

But at Statistics Canada, recruitment is just one part of the equation, she says: “Retention is a big issue.”

People leave Statistics Canada for other departments because the nature of the work offers better career enhancement opportunities. Otherwise they want to work on other Aboriginal-related opportunities that are more likely available at a department like Health Canada.

In an effort to stem the flow, focus groups have been held and an Aboriginal advisory circle created. The circle meets once a month. Aside from helping Aboriginal employees network and feel more comfortable within the organization, they’ll meet to discuss and work on various issues that have an impact on the Aboriginal work experience at Statistics Canada.

For example, some of the 12 members of the circle worked with a third-party consultant to create a sensitivity training module that was offered to non-Aboriginal Canadians. And together with employees from Health Canada, the group also worked on Aboriginal awareness week.

Leslie McGregor manages the Native Skills Centre in downtown Toronto, which offers a number of job training programs designed specifically to help Aboriginal Canadians find work. Some of the students do come with distinct cultural traits that can make it difficult for them to adjust to the corporate world, she says.

For example, many Aboriginal Canadians aren’t comfortable with confrontation. “They are either more passive or extremely aggressive.” The more passive people often just won’t go back to work, she says. While the aggressive ones turn the confrontation into a full-blown fight and will get fired because of it. “We try to teach them how to manage those conflicts,” she says.

For the most part, her students are happiest when they go into organizations that are either Aboriginal-run or dedicated to Aboriginal issues. Often Native organizations are more supportive of new employees, providing them mentors. The people who are most successful on the job usually have someone assigned to help them. “They seem to prefer to be around other Aboriginal people,” she says. “They are not as intimidated by that.”

In the Prairie provinces, the context is very different than that of downtown Toronto.

By 2016, it’s projected that more than 15 per cent of the labour forces of cities like Winnipeg, Regina and Saskatoon will be Aboriginal. In Toronto, Aboriginals will make up less than two per cent of the workforce. In the 1998 report,

Recent trends in labour markets for Aboriginal peoples

, author Michael Mendelson wrote, “there is probably no single more important issue for the economic future of the Prairies, and more particularly, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, than the advancement of its Aboriginal human resources.”

In Alberta’s oil patch, real efforts, and real progress, have been made in recent years. And with those efforts come invaluable lessons.

It takes a lot of time and effort, says Greg Hundseth, who was hired by Suncor Energy in 1997 with the primary objective of increasing the number of Aboriginal workers at the Canadian oil giant.

Any time an organization makes a conscious effort to hire more Aboriginals, it’s likely they’ll enjoy some immediate success and make some hires. But to realize a sustainable increase in the number of Aboriginal employees, employers have to be prepared to do as much career counselling as recruiting. “You have to get involved in the communities and with the schools,” he says.

Suncor forged a partnership with Keyano College in Fort McMurray, Alta., to develop engineering and mine operations training programs. And there are a lot of meetings with community elders and visits to high schools to encourage kids to stay in school, and simply talk with other people about what training they need before they would be able to work at Suncor, he says. Hundseth, himself a Métis, makes regular trips to communities like Fort Chipewyan, 200 km north of his Fort McMurray base. In the summer, the community is only accessible by boat or plane. From about mid-December to mid-March, it’s possible to drive in by a winter road.

It may not be easy to get there, but regular meetings are the only way the company can maintain a relationship with the community and, Hundseth hopes, ensure the community is developing people who will be able to work for the company in the future.

“One thing that doesn’t work, that it is absolutely useless, is career fairs,” says Hundseth about some of the other strategies they’ve tried.

Kids either skip the big multi-employer fairs or only come looking for free giveaways. You need a captive audience, he says. It’s better for an organization on its own to go to a school, bring the kids into one classroom and have Aboriginal employees talk about what they have achieved and what the kids must do to enjoy the same success.

Suncor also avoids offering signing bonuses for Aboriginal employees. “You don’t want to treat Aboriginal employees differently,” he says. It is important to create cohesion among workers, and if you award one group over the other it can lead to resentment, he says.

For Suncor, retention has never been a problem, he says. The company is viewed as an employer of choice in the region. The pay is good and opportunities exist for advancement and development. The company turnover rate is about 4.5 per cent and that is little different for the Aboriginal employee population, he says.

When Hundseth was hired in 1997, 2.3 per cent of the Suncor workforce was Aboriginal. The company set a goal of 12 per cent by the year 2000. Today, it has about 240 Aboriginal employees, slightly more than 10 per cent of the organization.

Asked why Suncor has made such a commitment, Hundseth says it is simply a matter of the company’s leaders deciding it was the right thing to do.

Suncor makes its money in the middle of a large Aboriginal population and the leaders of those communities made it clear they want more jobs for their people. The company decided its working population should reflect regional demographics, he says.

“Plain and simply we have to be good corporate citizens.”

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