Aboriginals key to tackling labour shortage

But concerns about skills, education, experience among challenges: Reports
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/06/2012

Each year, five Aboriginal workers participate in a four-year apprenticeship program at Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries (Al-Pac) in Boyle, Alta. The company works with the local Aboriginal community to specifically target workers who may be interested in apprenticeships for millwrights, pipefitters, electrical or heavy- duty technicians or power engineers, said Mike Pelletier, HR business unit leader.

Getting more Aboriginal people into the workforce is important — even if it’s not at Al-Pac, he said.

“Some will come and get two years, for instance, and they may go elsewhere and finish off their apprenticeship somewhere else. That, for us, is still a success because we’ve introduced them to the field and trade and if they decide to move elsewhere, that’s great,” said Pelletier.

Increasing the employment of Aboriginal Peoples is one of the key ways to confront Canada’s skilled labour shortage, according to recent reports.

“Canada’s Aboriginal population is the fastest growing population cohort in Canada and it’s a domestic source of supply, and engaging Aboriginal workers can help Canada meet its future labour market needs,” said Alison Howard, principal research associate at the Conference Board of Canada in Ottawa and co-author of the report Understanding the Value, Challenges and Opportunities of Engaging Métis, Inuit and First Nations Workers.

More than three-quarters (79.1 per cent) of employers believe the engagement of Aboriginal workers is important to their business, found a survey of 173 organizations across Canada as part of the report.

But 51.6 per cent have difficulty attracting and recruiting Aboriginal workers, and the top challenge is their low skill levels — such as literacy and technical skills, according to 70.2 per cent of respondents.

One-third (34 per cent) of the Aboriginal population has not completed high school or obtained an equivalent diploma or certificate, compared to 15 per cent of the non-Aboriginal population, found Canada’s 2006 census. And 44 per cent of the Aboriginal population has a post-secondary degree, certificate or diploma, compared to 61 per cent of the non-Aboriginal population.

This poses a challenge for employers as many Aboriginal workers do not meet the entry requirements around education levels for several positions, said the Conference Board’s report.

Lack of work experience (59.6 per cent) is also a top challenge in recruiting Aboriginal workers, found the report.

Offering programs such as job placements and apprenticeships can help, said Perrin Beatty, president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Ottawa, which released the report Canada’s Skills Crisis: What We Heard based on roundtable discussions at 14 locations across Canada.

“It gives practical training to employees so that they have the skills that are well-tailored to the specific job they’re going to be doing, and to the extent to which we’re able to customize and recognize the particular needs or skills that individual has, so much the better,” he said.

Another challenge in recruiting Aboriginal workers is their reluctance to relocate (39.1 per cent). Many Aboriginal communities are located at a significant distance from urban centres, and people don’t want to move away, found the Conference Board report.

To address this, employers located close to Aboriginal communities should tap into that workforce, said Beatty.

“For example, in the resource sector, if you’re putting in electricity infrastructure in rural or remote areas, often the Aboriginal population is the one that is the most local and should be the first place you turn to try and find workers.”

Al-Pac strives to hire as many local people as it can and reaches out to local Aboriginal communities first when opportunities arise, said Pelletier.

“If you’re doing business in an area where you can actually increase the economy or affect individuals in that local area, then you should be involving them in the business,” he said. “You’re doing it because it’s a good community thing… and, in order to be successful in the community, you have to involve them.”

Al-Pac does not have any quotas or targets in place for hiring Aboriginal workers, which helps boost its credibility within that community, said Pelletier. Ten per cent of its 440 employees are Aboriginal.

“You’re not segregating, not playing favourites or anything like that. You’re making sure everybody is standing on their own merits and, if you can do that, everybody respects you a lot more,” he said. “They’re getting the job because they’ve earned the job.”

The inability to communicate or reach out to potential workers in Aboriginal communities (16.6 per cent) is another recruitment barrier. So employers should work with community organizations, band or treaty organizations and sector councils to build awareness of their company within Aboriginal communities, said Howard.

“They offer the outreach that employers often lack. They have the rapport already built with Aboriginal communities, and sometimes there’s trust issues as well between employers and Aboriginal groups so if a liaison or intermediary group is there, that can act as a buffer that will help bridge the gap.”

Al-Pac has an Aboriginal affairs department that works with many groups within the local Aboriginal communities to boost awareness of the company, answer any questions workers may have and promote job postings, said Pelletier.


When it comes to retention, one of the top challenges is the hiring of Aboriginal workers by other companies (24.8 per cent), found the Conference Board survey.

“The pool of Aboriginal workers is still relatively small and you get employers competing with each other,” said Beatty. “You may hire someone and do initial training, they get some experience with you and somebody else comes along hoping to boost their Aboriginal staff complement as well.”

Aboriginal-friendly workplace programs and policies (cited by 56.6 per cent of respondents as an effective method) can help to retain Aboriginal workers, found the survey.

One way to do this is by providing time off for seasonal activities, such as hunting and fishing, said Howard.

Al-Pac has many flexible work arrangements, including extended time off for a death in the family of Aboriginal workers because their bereavement traditions and processes are a bit longer, said Pelletier.

Cultural programs (25.7 per cent) and cultural support staff (22.1 per cent) are also effective methods for retaining Aboriginal workers.

“It has to do with bridging the cultures between your community and your Aboriginal culture with the culture of the workplace,” said Howard. “And for staff members to create a higher level of understanding of Aboriginal cultures, it helps break down negative stereotypes and racism on the job.”

To do this, all employees at Al-Pac undergo “Aboriginal 101,” a cultural training program that is mandatory on an annual basis, said Pelletier.

Focusing on recruiting and retaining Aboriginal workers has helped Al-Pac fulfill its workforce requirements and put it in a good position to tackle the skilled labour shortage.

“There are pockets of certain positions that are harder to fill but, in general, we have a very low turnover rate — last year it was five per cent,” said Pelletier. “We’ve done a fairly good job of holding onto the people here just by the culture we’ve created.”

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