Aboriginals a ‘strategic imperative’

Alberta employers honoured for work in diversity, community
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/25/2011

In 2010, PTI Group hired nearly 200 Aboriginal Peoples in Alberta. So far, the Edmonton-based company has retained 94 per cent of those hires.

“It’s a better retention rate than any other demographic we have working in the company,” said Sandy Sanderson, director of Aboriginal relations at PTI, which provides workforce accommodation, facilities management and catering services to resource industries, many in remote parts of the province.

It’s a strategic imperative for the company to develop good relationships with Aboriginal communities, said Sanderson. And since the majority of PTI’s work in Canada takes place on or near traditional Aboriginal land, Sanderson created a strategic plan for Aboriginal relations nearly three years ago. He educated employees about the importance of working with Aboriginal communities and the requirement all firms consult with Aboriginal nations before developing on traditional land, according to a 2004 Supreme Court of Canada ruling.

There is also a human resources imperative as the competition for talent heats up again in Alberta, said Sanderson.

“We’re tapping into an untapped pool of employees and people who are ready, willing and able,” said Sanderson.

PTI worked with Aboriginal communities to uncover barriers to employment. It found many Aboriginal Peoples were qualified but didn’t have access to reliable and affordable transportation to PTI camps.

So Sanderson worked with the Saddle Lake First Nation and the Dene Tha First Nation to create a community-based transportation company to drive people between the reserve and the worksite.

“By eliminating the transportation barrier, it was a huge breakthrough in terms of moving forward,” said Sanderson.

PTI also worked with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, the provincial government and the Rupertsland Institute to create a cook training program at the camp.

During the course of the program, 10 Aboriginal youth spent 42 days in camp with a seven-day break in the middle, the same as PTI employees. Their training consisted of class instruction and practical experience.

“We wanted to give them a real-world experience of the kind of work they’ll actually be doing,” said Sanderson.

All 10 participants are now employed by PTI and are in the first year of their apprenticeship. A second cohort of 10 trainees began in March.

“PTI’s employment training programs are really, really good,” said Tracy Elofson, event manager at the Alberta Chambers of Commerce. “It’s like having a job and training at the same time.”

This innovative training program is one of the reasons PTI received the Premier’s Award of Distinction at the Alberta Business Awards of Distinction, hosted by the Alberta Chambers of Commerce in March.

The winner of the premier’s award is chosen from the finalists for the 10 Awards of Distinction and is presented to the company that demonstrates ongoing, consistent involvement in community events and organizations. PTI was a finalist for the Aboriginal Relations — Best Practice Award of Distinction.

As well as honouring businesses doing exemplary work, the awards give other organizations the chance to learn best practices, said Elofson.

“Everybody needs to be more aware of diversity, from hiring Aboriginals to people with disabilities and youth,” he said.

The question of how to engage youth is one Canadian Fertilizers, winner of the Employer of Youth Award of Distinction, has been addressing since 1991.

At the time, the media was reporting there was a shortage of quality tradespeople, said Russ Holowachuk, general manager at the Medicine Hat, Alta.-based fertilizer manufacturer.

“We felt it was incumbent upon us to get people into trades and get them educated and not wait for someone else,” he said.

The company works with Alberta’s Registered Apprenticeship Program, providing work placements to high school students in Grades 10, 11 and 12. By the time a participant graduates high school, he has completed the first year of his apprenticeship, said Holowachuk.

The program has a profound affect on young people who might not want to pursue a university degree and aren’t sure about their future, he said.

“Teachers are really receptive to this program because students’ marks go up, attendance goes up, their whole attitude improves because they know where they’re going,” said Holowachuk.

Canadian Fertilizers also provides guaranteed four-year apprenticeships through CAREERS: The Next Generation, a private-public partnership that helps youth interested in careers in trades and technology.

The company also hires up to 12 college students every summer and provides work placements for university co-op students, he said.

The key to successfully engaging young people is to make the work placement as worthwhile and practical as possible, he said. This means pairing them with engineers or journeypersons, sending them into the field and giving them a real feel for the work, said Holowachuk.

“We’ve had co-op students do some phenomenal work,” he said. “We’ve been really impressed.”

And with Canadian Fertilizers’ aging employee population, having that pipeline of young workers will be essential for the company’s future success, said Holowachuk.

Shannon Klie is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

Alberta business awards of distinction

And the winners are...

Premier’s Award of Distinction: PTI Group, Edmonton

Aboriginal Woman Entrepreneur Award of Distinction: Janice Larocque, Spirit Staffing & Consulting, Calgary

Diversity Leadership Award of Distinction: Ghost River Rediscovery Society, Calgary

Employer of Persons with Disabilities Award of Distinction: TD Bank Financial Group, Calgary

Employer of Youth Award of Distinction: Canadian Fertilizers, Medicine Hat

Small Business Award of Distinction: Cedar Ridge Quality Homes, Lethbridge

Aboriginal Relations – Best Practice Award of Distinction: United Protection Services, Edmonton

Eagle Feather Business Award of Distinction: Lesser Slave Lake Management Services, Slave Lake

Marketing Award of Distinction: Big Rock Brewery, Calgary

Youth Entrepreneur Award of Distinction: Massey Whiteknife, ICEIS Safety, Fort MacKay

Export Award of Distinction: Athabasca University, Athabasca

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