Immigrants fill construction gaps in B.C.

Program to address shortage in province’s booming construction sector could provide a blueprint for the entire country

Awden Askander knows what it is to be an immigrant looking for work in Canada. Fourteen years ago, shortly after fleeing his native Iraq and the first Gulf War, Askander, an agricultural engineer by training, went to work in Vancouver construction for a month — for nothing.

“I couldn’t find a paying job, but I wanted to prove I could work,” said Askander, now a superintendent with Peter Ross Ltd., one of British Columbia’s major roofing firms.

Now, he and the roofing company are putting four recent immigrants to work, helping to top off Vancouver highrises. It’s part of the Immigrant Skilled Trades Employment Program (ISTEP), a three-year pilot project being run by the British Columbia Construction Association (BCCA) with the support of the Construction Sector Council of Canada (CSC) and federal financing from the Foreign Credential Recognition Program. If the program is successful in B.C. — and all signs indicate it’s working so far — ISTEP will serve as a model for other parts of Canada facing similar construction shortages.

B.C. is a good place to put the program through its paces. Its construction sector is booming, thanks in part to massive preparations for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Alberta isn’t helping matters either, as its red-hot economy and construction boom lures workers away.

BCCA project manager Paul Mitchell, who used to run a provincial boat building program, leads an ISTEP team of four regional, experienced job coaches. They connect immigrants with B.C. employers by assessing each immigrant’s skills and experience against job requirements. Once hired, they stick with their protégés, advising them on further training as well as helping them adjust to Canadian conditions.

That’s what Randy Brodeur, a former steam fitter, has been doing as the northern B.C. job coach for a highly-prized crane operator from Singapore working in Prince George.

“He’s had a lot of questions for me because, as you might imagine, conditions are a lot different in Singapore,” said Brodeur. “I range from explaining how to simply get around in a big country to things like union rules and that, when you work overtime, you get paid more than the regular rate. They were all news to him.”

ISTEP does not discriminate between union and non-union employers. But it does insist that participating companies pay properly.

“We don’t just send them a warm body,” said Matthew Stevenson, the ISTEP job coach and industry liaison for the Lower Mainland region, the province’s biggest beehive of new construction.

“We don’t make any snap judgments about our workers. We do a thorough assessment. We help them prepare for both the job and the job interview. So we make sure when they are hired that they are paid market value.”

That’s been a fair deal as far as a growing number of Lower Mainland-based companies are concerned, including Cascadia Sports Systems in Port Moody. Cascadia makes hockey rink boards, or dasherboards as they are known, that are now rebounding pucks and supporting fledgling skaters in 15 countries.

“Matthew and ISTEP provided us with two Indonesian finishing carpenters and we’re very pleased with them,” said Murdo Paterson, Cascadia’s general manager. “They’re not working with wood here but their skills were easily transferable.”

And so was Cascadia’s largesse.

“Our employees are mostly older. But one of those new guys has three children so his family got the most presents at our company Christmas party,” said Paterson.

That kind of benefit for all is what George Gritziotis, the CSC’s executive director, thinks will make ISTEP a blueprint for the rest of the country.

“As construction labour demands peak, such as in Alberta and B.C. and soon, because of new investments there, in Atlantic Canada, there’s no sense in reinventing the wheel,” said Gritziotis. “ISTEP can serve as a model not only for pulling in skilled immigrants but also other sources of untapped labour including Aboriginal, women and youth.”

To make sure it can be a pattern for others, Mitchell’s three-year contract to manage ISTEP calls for him to write up best practices before moving on. Meanwhile, the CSC is working on overcoming the biggest hurdle to the useful spread of the model — lack of reliable construction labour market data.

“The CSC now has committees in each province that are responsible for market forecasts,” said Gritziotis. “So we’ll know where a program like ISTEP is truly needed.”

Askander at Peter Ross doesn’t need convincing.

“We want to find workers who are decent people and who want to work, raise a family, and become part of the community. ISTEP certainly helps us with that,” said Askander. “And that way both the company and Canada win.”

For more information about the ISTEP program, visit www.istepbc.ca.

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