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Building Up program changes lives, creates diverse skills pool

Don Wall
Building Up program changes lives, creates diverse skills pool

A five-year-old Toronto social enterprise agency is proving to be a significant success story as the construction sector in Ontario searches far and wide for new recruits.

Building Up, a non-profit construction pre-apprenticeship program, was launched in Toronto in 2015 as a way to fill distinct social gaps — to create pathways for individuals who are living troubled lives to access apprenticeships in the construction trades, and to upgrade and create efficiencies in the city’s old housing stock where some of those potential clients might be living.

The Twitter account of Ontario Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development Monte McNaughton highlighted the program in December, posting a video of a woman who served time in prison alongside the minister with the message: “From prison to a career in the trades. Melissa tells her story. Good jobs change lives, make families stronger, and improve communities.”

“I believe government’s job is to spread opportunity and give people a hand up and certainly that’s happening when we fund groups like Building Up,” the minister said recently, discussing his appearance with Melissa.

Melissa is now just a year-and-a-half away from writing the Red Seal exam to become a full-fledged carpenter.

“I find that people need to actually reach out and help,” she explained recently. “Building Up does just that as they’re helping a lot of men and women go through what I went through.”

The agency is supported by governments, construction unions such as LIUNA, and other sponsors. In Toronto, about 100 pre-apprentices on average each year move on from Building Up to union apprenticeships.

“There’s millions of dollars of work to be done in affordable housing buildings, and at the same time those towers are filled with people that are looking for work,” said Marc Soberano, executive director for Building Up in Toronto.

“So rather than bringing in external contractors, where…all the skills and the income that could have been generated on projects just leave the building, what we’ve done with this model is we started a nonprofit contracting company that hires people experiencing homelessness, at risk of homelessness or coming out of jail or new to the country as refugees.

“People living in the housing actually do the work and use that as a vehicle at the same time to bridge this big skills gap that exists in the trades.”

The program taps into new sources of workers at a time when the construction sector is looking for more diversity, Soberano said. Recruitment is done through counsellors, parole officers or refugee consultants.

The agency has its own training centre and also sets up applicants with access to supports such as math classes, life counselling and driving lessons.

“Before anyone goes to a jobsite, they get eight weeks of in-class training with us which includes getting all their health and safety tickets, and includes a full hands-on program, where they learn how to frame, to drywall, to tile,” he said, listing examples of labourer’s skills.

Having persevered through two years of her apprenticeship with the Carpenters’, Melissa now helps others ascend the ladder, working as a peer adviser with Building Up.

“I find that a lot of people who have criminal records, they feel like there’s nothing for them,” she said. “And people discriminate against them and are not hiring them, even though they have the skills.”


Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.

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