Geoff Grist came to Canada from Wales 35 years ago hoping for an opportunity to succeed and was given the break he needed.
Today the chairman and founder of Toronto-based Brook Restoration is doing the same for others.
In May Brook was announced as the recipient of a $2-million Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development grant to train 150 young people in restoration work, with the promise of a job with Brook at the end of a 10-week training period. The program is targeting youths in disadvantaged communities in Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa aged 18 to 29, including those who are homeless or living in community housing.
“I got a break when I came to Canada in 1986,” said Grist recently, sitting at a board table surrounded by three trainees. “I was lucky to get a break. People looked after me.”
Jacob Yankey, Trevor Samuels and Joshua Selassie are receiving two weeks of classroom learning at the company’s head office and eight weeks of on-the-job training with Brook and other businesses in Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa. Participants are paid up to $3,000 during the training.
Business is good for Brook, which undertakes hundreds of projects a year, large and small. Yankey, Samuels and Selassie will learn such skills as concrete demolition, pouring concrete, waterproofing, concrete patching, caulking and sealing in their journey to become skilled labourers.
“Everybody’s screaming about the shortage of skilled trades,” said Grist. “We have so much talent in our own backyard.”
Selassie, 28, came from Jamaica in 2012 and has been working since he was nine. He said he needs to succeed with Brook — he has responsibilities.
“It doesn’t matter what job it is, I’m always working,” he said. “Basically, I’m the one that’s kind of the breadwinner right now for my dad and my mom…so there’s a lot of people that I have to make sure I’m there for them. I always have that in the back of my head.”
Selassie has worked at many jobs but as soon as he tried construction, he knew it was a good fit.
“I see that I can learn different skills,” he said. “It just gives me an extra push to want to continue in the field.
“My mom always told me when I was small, she told me you always got to want it more than someone else.”
At age 30, Samuels, also of Jamaican background, is keen to advance his career with Brook in part to support his family. He has experience with concrete and carpentry but wants to go further.
“I see this opportunity to get more hands-on and gain more skills and create more of a career for myself and my family,” Samuels said. “I’ve always grown to create my own opportunities.”
He said many of the trainees are getting a “second chance” in their lives — “everyone has their own story.”
He said the program gives them an opportunity to make better choices.
“I feel that this program is great for that and for people that actually don’t have that opportunity, for people to reach out to them and to give them a chance,” he remarked. “People just don’t know, it’s lack of knowledge, right? But you have it at your grasp, you want to take it.”
Yankey, 24, has been attending George Brown College, training as a construction tech, and learned co-operation skills as a soccer player at the school that he figures will be of value at Brook. He is also a quick learner and adapts well, he said.
“By playing soccer, I am used to always working with others. Everyone has to be on the same page,” he said.
But he entered the Brook program knowing he has to thrive on his own.
“It’s more personal because as of March this year I lost my mom so there’s nobody to lean back on,” he said. “I had to just make that leap. I always had my mom backing me up, she was always there for me.”
All three trainees praised Brook for given them and their colleagues the benefit of their wisdom.
“Geoff is someone that I look up to,” said Selassie, noting a lot is learned in simple conversations with Grist and his staff. “What he is doing is amazing, because I just look at the opportunity that he is creating for a lot of people. And giving back.”
Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.