Tapping the Aboriginal labour market

Strong social ties help retain Aboriginal workers

There is a real disconnect between employers and the Aboriginal labour market, says Kelly Lendsay, president and CEO of the Aboriginal Human Resource Development Council of Canada (AHRDCC).

“In an environment of skills and labour shortages, companies should be looking for every undiscovered and untapped labour pool they can find,” he says. “This means thinking about what the Aboriginal community has to offer to employers.”

With 50 per cent under the age of 25, the Aboriginal population is growing at twice the rate of the Canadian population. Despite common perception, the majority live in cities. Aboriginal populations constitute 13 per cent of Saskatoon and 15 per cent of Regina. Winnipeg has 60,000 Aboriginal residents, and numbers are growing in other centres such as Sudbury, Ont., and Hamilton.

“Today you can find Aboriginal people working in every industry from nursing and finance to music,” says Lendsay. “This is very different from 10 years ago. School completion rates are going up and employment rates are improving. There are still huge challenges and tremendous gaps, but the gaps are starting to close. This means we can position the Aboriginal community as a meaningful solution for employers in addressing the supply side of labour shortages.”

AHRDCC has brought together various stakeholders to exchange information and learn from each other on how to advance Aboriginal talent in the workplace.

“We call it the Inclusion Network. We work with employers, colleges, unions and Aboriginal employment services to document and encourage strategies that work, such as programs to bring elders into the workplace,” says Lendsay, adding that the latter can help provide mentoring or counselling support.

Suncor is one of the network partners. Heather Kennedy, vice-president, employee and community relations at Suncor in Fort McMurray, Alta., is helping AHRDCC develop tools for employers to evaluate their Aboriginal inclusion practices and prepare to get to the next level of Aboriginal participation.

“Eleven per cent of our employees are of Aboriginal origin,” says Kennedy. “That figure rises to almost 14 per cent in our process and equipment operations. Suncor is working to broaden the spectrum of Aboriginal employees. We want to increase diversity in our technical, professional, management and executive jobs.”

Suncor, through the federal Aboriginal Skills to Employment program, brings in 20 Aboriginal students six times a year for individual and group activities to help them overcome barriers to employment and prepare for jobs as heavy equipment operators.

“For some it is completing Grade 12, for others it is getting a driver’s licence,” says Kennedy. “We find that a smaller, hands-on environment works well to get Aboriginal students started on a career path, so we encourage our suppliers to take Aboriginal apprentices into their organizations and we offer journeyman employment when they are ready.”

Lendsay is interested in what motivates Aboriginal workers.

“We know that praise and involvement are important to all employees,” he says. “But perhaps within the Aboriginal community other things mean more. We think, for example, that social networks, collaboration and dialogue may be important in attracting and retaining Aboriginal employees. Through our Networks of Change program, we have signed up about 20 companies to research what it takes to support Aboriginal career development.”

Knowledge and awareness within the Aboriginal community of career opportunities is another factor in expanding job participation. Small and dispersed communities may have few role models. To address this, AHRDCC offers career development tools and information. Their booklet, Guiding Circles, helps people at all stages look at their talents and abilities with the goal of discovering themselves. Lendsay says they have had tremendous results. Dropouts are coming back to school with a new focus on their educational goals. The program is so successful Australia wants to roll it out for its own Aboriginal communities.

Linking Aboriginal jobseekers with employers is the final step in the support programs being developed by AHRDCC. Brainhunter, a Toronto-based technology company, is behind a web-based tool designed to match employers with Aboriginal applicants. David Gammon, Brainhunter’s vice-president of business development, says the Inclusion Network’s job board is the largest nationwide database of Aboriginal talent.

“Aboriginal people are a sector of the workforce that is under-employed,” says Gammon. “In an era that is desperate for skilled workers, employers need to take off their blinders, and make an extra effort to see what is out there in the Aboriginal community. When employers can find the skills they need through this job board, then they are less interested in questions of diversity.”

Typically, there are more than 200 jobs on AHRDCC’s Inclusion Network job board, 2,100 active jobseekers and 1,900 resumés. Employers posting on the board include the major banks, Purolator and technology firms. Outreach to prospective applicants is done through the 400 Aboriginal employment centres across the country.

“The job board has a strong representation of Aboriginal people,” says Kennedy. “We use it because we get high quality candidates, and it supports Suncor’s core values to be a good neighbour and encourage diversity.”

Lendsay is optimistic about the future for more effective deployment of Aboriginal talent. The challenge is to prepare Aboriginal people to pursue their passions and to provide job opportunities in a supportive work environment.

“We are beginning to see some success with employers acting as ambassadors, but getting there is a marathon and not a sprint,” he says.

Susan Singh is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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