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Finding expertise in the immigrant labour pool

Don Procter
Finding expertise in the immigrant labour pool
Dexter Construction has had success hiring and retaining workers through the Immigrant Services Association of  Nova Scotia for its concrete division. The contractor was recently awarded the Refugee Employment Award from Citizenship and Immigration Canada for hiring six immigrants for its concrete division in 2013. -

Halifax-based contractor Dexter Construction has discovered a pool of “underutilized labour” that is proving to be a good hiring source for hard-working and reliable workers for its concrete division as well as other divisions in its fold.

That is no small feat because it is difficult for many contractors to find workers who are a long-term fit in the concrete sector which tends to see workers come and go in the physically demanding trade. Concrete formwork is a case in point.

But of the six immigrants (some of whom are refugees) hired by Dexter Construction over two years ago, through a labour pool at the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS), five are still working for the company.

That is an impressive retention rate, says Ryan Kidney, director of human resources, the Municipal Group of Companies and Dexter Construction. Dexter recently received the Refugee Employment Award from Citizenship and Immigration Canada for hiring the immigrants in 2013.

"Concrete is very challenging labour-intensive work and it has been challenging to find people locally that want to work in that industry," he says. "Typically, if we hired 15 (local) people, we might have only five the next year."

So what sets the immigrants/refugees apart?

Fewer employment options for the new arrivals to Canada might be one reason they stick it out. Whatever the reason, Kidney says immigrants have shown a readiness to learn and a willingness to work hard. The jobs are mostly in concrete formwork but Dexter has set its sights on training some of the immigrants to do concrete finishing — a skill that takes years to perfect.

The type of work ranges from small jobs such as sidewalks to complex concrete bridges, he says.

Kidney says he came across ISANS while doing research on where to find workers a few years ago. The contractor hired the six through ISANS’ Bridge to Work program, a three-month course which covers basic construction skills.

A number of those new hires — including several people from Butan — had construction experience back home but weren’t familiar with building methods and technology in Canada.

"They were used to doing things by hand that we use machines to do," he says.

The contractor does much of its own training through the Dexter Institute. Originally meant for training in heavy equipment operation when it was founded in the early 2000s, the institute today trains 20 to 25 people annually in a program geared to construction sectors for which Dexter works.

"Some of the new immigrants probably will go through the program," Kidney says, adding the company is looking for more people with skilled trades largely for heavy civil construction work that is the company’s bread and butter.

He sees a large pool of immigrants with construction backgrounds who are currently underemployed, often in low-paying service industry jobs.

"Many of these people (new immigrants) have construction skills that they haven’t been using since they arrived here. They are the people we want," he says.

"A lot of people think in the Maritimes there is huge unemployment and maybe there is in some areas but in Halifax and vicinity there is not much unemployment."

Even finding people to work as labourers can be a challenge, he points out.

Kidney says he is unaware of any other contractors taking advantage of labour recruitment potential through ISANS.

"I would argue that it is an underutilized labour pool. Mind you, there are challenges with it because some of the workers’ language skills aren’t perfect. But they have to start somewhere and they have to be given the opportunity."

Dexter went back to ISANS earlier this year to hire 14 more immigrants for its expanding environmental/waste management division. The new hires work as drivers and as garbage pickup workers.

Kidney says winning the Refugee Employment Award, which is internationally recognized, was "quite pleasing. The only other companies in Canada that won the award were Sobeys and Safeway."

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