Aquatera Utilities in Grande Prairie, Alta., works with a local college to provide work experience for First Nations students. Individuals who have completed an Aboriginal workforce preparation course work at Aquatera for 16 weeks to gain on-the-job experience.
“It’s intended to take folks who haven’t got the necessary skills or abilities to get themselves into the workplace and provide them with the background work they need to have — safety programs, employment readiness kinds of things,” said Wendy Gregg, HR manager at the 122-employee organization.
And many participants are hired for a longer term, she said.
Programs such as these that help bring First Nations people into the workforce would likely be welcomed by the 74.1 per cent of HR professionals who think First Nations people are an underutilized human resource, according to a Pulse Survey of 235 Canadian HR Reporter readers and members of the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA).
“I think there’s often not enough awareness sometimes with organizations themselves about the number of skilled First Nations people there are and often First Nations people don’t come forward and identify themselves as such,” said Janice Horton, HR consultant at MaxSys Consulting and Staffing in Ottawa who works with the federal government, most often with the Department of National Defence.
Both the First Nations and the non-Aboriginal communities contribute to First Nations people being underutilized in the workforce, said Gregg.
“(First Nations people) are not being developed in schools for the non-Aboriginal workplace, work ethic or work culture so, in some ways, there’s that culture clash,” she said. “And there still exists a fair amount of discrimination and stereotyping that happens in the non-Aboriginal work world.”
Robbie Niquanicappo, a policy analyst for the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba, agrees the discrimination faced by First Nations people in the off-reserve workplace is a prevalent issue.
“Having worked at a non-Aboriginal setting, comments have been directed my way: ‘Oh, he got that job because he’s Indian,’ ‘Must be nice to have a treaty number’ and this and that,” said Niquanicappo, whose band employs about 600 people.
“It’s humiliating to have to go through that, so I stopped applying years ago.”
To reduce discrimination and stereotypes in the workplace, employers need to understand the kinds of people they want in their organization and the supports they need, said Gregg.
“Cultural awareness is a big one and (employers need to) understand why things are the way they are and have the tools, the patience and the skills to develop them within the workplace,” she said.
Lack of candidates, academic qualifications limit recruitment
A lack of candidates was cited by 66.7 per cent of respondents as the top factor limiting the recruitment of First Nations individuals. Many have not had the opportunity to receive the education and skills required for many professional jobs, so the pool of candidates can be small, said Horton.
A lack of academic qualifications was the second major factor limiting the recruitment of First Nations candidates, according to 54.7 per cent of survey respondents.
“For many of our positions where we provide training — like treatment plant operators — we’re required by law for these people to have their Grade 12,” said Gregg. “We require Grade 12 as our minimum because if we keep people around without it, we run into issues around succession planning.”
The lack of academic qualifications is certainly an issue for older generations, but this should become less of an issue over time as more and more young people focus on their education, said Niquanicappo.
“We are churning out graduates from high school and we have a whole influx of young people looking at going to post-secondary schools,” he said, adding university graduates in his band talk to students coming out of high school about university and what it’s like and encourage them to attend.
Lack of experience is another limiting factor cited by 46.2 per cent of survey respondents. This is of a particular concern for the younger generations who have misconceptions or are inexperienced about what the work ethic should be, said Niquanicappo.
“On a reserve, things are a bit more relaxed — we don’t rigidly follow what you would have in an urban, corporate setting. We’re not as rigid around rules. That’s not to say we don’t have them, but we’re just a bit easier on them,” he said.
And 34.7 per cent of respondents said the location of candidates was an issue.
“We have one reserve 20 minutes away from Grande Prairie and that’s a bit difficult for people without a vehicle… because there’s no public transportation to most of our work sites,” said Gregg. “Transportation is a big issue.”
But nearly one-third (31.5 per cent) of survey respondents have a clearly stated mission to encourage the recruitment of First Nations candidates. In the federal government, recruitment campaigns actively invite First Nations individuals to apply and there are “all kinds of procedures to encourage this,” said Horton.
“In the hiring board, we’ll create an atmosphere or the ability to properly interview people who may be of First Nations heritage. That means they’ll be sensitive to people’s background, to how they could be best used in the organization and be aware of the culture,” she said.
Mandated equity programs
About one-half (52.8 per cent) of survey respondents work at an organization with a mandated employment equity program. Over the last three years, 30.9 per cent said they had met their professional employment equity numbers in regards to First Nations people while 41.5 per cent had not.
One of Horton’s colleagues is Aboriginal and she has been very helpful with recruitment.
“It’s like everything else — once you have hired people who are Aboriginal or people who are disabled or whatever, you’re able to use that person to recruit more people and to build more sensitivity,” she said.
Problems with quotas
However, being required to meet a quota for First Nations employees can actually work against an organization as it undermines the trust and relationships an employer is trying to build, said Gregg.
“Whenever we apply outside the reserve, the selling factor seems to be that I am an Aboriginal,” said Niquanicappo. “As an individual, I’d rather be taken strictly on my credentials and skills and whatnot… A lot are turned off by (quotas) and we simply won’t apply because of that.”
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