Northern mine develops essential skills in its workforce

Applicants for entry-level jobs at BHP Billiton’s Ekati Diamond Mine in the Northwest Territories aren’t required to have minimum schooling levels.

That’s because when the mine first opened in 1998, recruiters quickly realized that a number of candidates — most of whom were northern Aboriginals — just couldn’t meet an educational minimum.

Most had considerably less than grade nine schooling, said Trevor Weir, training superintendent at the Ekati Diamond Mine. “The pool was not large enough, so we decided not to make educational standard a criterion for hiring.”

Realizing that the educational system up North just couldn’t respond quickly enough to churn out skilled workers to staff the mine, Weir said the company decided to do what it could to equip workers with the basics in literacy and math.

Using a methodology developed by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, the company set out compiling skills profiles for four entry-level positions, including warehouse technician, heavy equipment operator, process plant technician and maintenance helper.

Removing educational requirements means that recruiters now concentrate efforts on conducting background and security checks. Trainers then assess candidates individually and interview them about their learning histories and goals, said Susan Devins, one of the full-time adult educators at the mine site. Workers are then placed in groups depending on their training levels and work schedules.

The adult educators deliver the training at three levels: pre-literate for workers with less than third-grade schooling, the middle level for those with grades three to six, and the highest level for those who have completed sixth-grade and beyond.

The adult educators use actual workplace documents and manuals as teaching tools. Employees learn about preparing for a performance review, making presentations, scanning and other reading techniques. To learn how to work with numbers, they learn how to read shift times, flight times, metric and imperial measurements. They also learn about managing money, getting loans and making RRSP investments.

None of the training program is mandatory, noted Weir. “Some team leaders have made strong suggestions for certain individuals to come to the program. And if we do discover that an individual can’t function on the property without literacy and who’s not willing to come to the program, then we deal with that person another way. We find a different job for them,” said Weir, adding that he can’t remember a time when someone had to be terminated for not taking training.

Getting workers motivated to do their training isn’t an issue at Ekati, said Weir. In fact, the major challenge is finding the time when workers can leave the work crew to do training.

“The unfortunate thing is there are so many people we want to work with. People may get only a couple of hours every rotation. Each rotation is two weeks, and then they’re off for two weeks, so that means they get a couple of hours every month.”

Devins said the adult educators enjoy a good rapport with the team leaders, who often make specific requests for certain individuals to brush up on certain skills.

“In the beginning, when we set out the program, we visited all the work crews. We introduced the program and how we were going to work,” said Devins.

“We purposefully avoided the mystique around literacy because we help people at all levels. When a supervisor has a presentation that he wants to make into plain English, he’ll send it to us. We made it clear to people that we’re a resource, so that there’s no stigma in going to the adult educators.”

Weir said one of the big selling points of the training program is the skills improvement that team leaders notice in workers. “It may be just a boost to someone’s self-esteem. He communicates better, he reports on his equipment, he talks about problems he has with his machinery. It improves the interaction between the individual and the whole crew — that’s what we hear from team leaders regularly.”

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