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Winnipeg course offers refugees a chance for a career in construction

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by Don Procter

Winnipeg’s Red River College has developed a construction course for newcomer refugees that will lead them to paying jobs this summer.
Winnipeg’s Red River College has developed a construction course for newcomer refugees. The four-month course prepares students for work in masonry, flattop roofing and the wall and ceiling sector.
Winnipeg’s Red River College has developed a construction course for newcomer refugees. The four-month course prepares students for work in masonry, flattop roofing and the wall and ceiling sector. - Photo: RED RIVER COLLEGE

The four-month course, developed through the support of various government agencies, the Winnipeg Construction Association and local construction firms, prepares the 21 students for work in masonry, flattop roofing and the wall and ceiling sector.

The idea is to help refugees — many of whom are at risk of remaining on government financial assistance otherwise — launch their lives in Canada, says Kerri Caldwell, director of the college's language training centre.

"You see the hope in their eyes and you know how it will change their lives and their families' lives," says Caldwell, adding the refugees are facing tough odds, speaking little English, facing cultural change in a new country and work in a challenging field.

Ranging in age from 20 to the mid-40s, the refugees are from Syria, Somalia, Eritrea and the Congo.

In addition to an introduction to construction and safety, the course focuses on essential language skills required in construction.

"It was a real eye opener for them because safety regulations in other parts of the world, as we know, are not to the same standards they are in Canada,"

Kerri Caldwell
Red River College

"We can teach ESL (English as a Second Language) here but we were not going to pretend to know what a masonry worker needs," says Caldwell.

She adds that several language interpreters and a case management worker who speaks all of the refugees' languages are on hand for the students.

Even the simplest tasks and responsibilities are being taught — such as texting an employer when you are going to be late or are sick for work.

"The key is for them to learn to meet their employers' expectations," she says.

In the last month of the program, students head to jobsites where they will be paid by one of several construction employers participating in the program. So far Alpha Masonry Ltd., Ecco Wall & Ceiling and Allied Roofing are on board and the college is looking at other employers.

Caldwell says she hopes all of the refugees are kept on for the construction season to develop their construction skills. Over the winter, when most can be expected to be laid off, they can return to the college for several months of ESL training.

"Hopefully their language gets to the point where they can take apprenticeship programs," she adds.

Caldwell says the program's 100 per cent retention rate is a tribute in part to a comprehensive screening process developed in collaboration with various government agencies. The college looked for refugees with experience in construction and numeracy skills. It was also important that they be free of injury, such as chronic musculoskeletal injury, and that they have no fear of heights.

What few of the students had coming into the course was safety training.

"It was a real eye opener for them because safety regulations in other parts of the world, as we know, are not to the same standards they are in Canada," she adds.

A trip for the 21 students to a local footwear store for safety boots "was quite an experience for them. They didn't realize they needed things like a certain type of boots for the job."

The college expects to offer a second course in September but it will be geared to interior construction to ensure grads can secure work during the winter months.

"We will work with the Winnipeg Construction Association to make sure we find employers and areas where there is a need," she says.

The program is one of several pilot employment projects under the Refugee Employment Development Initiative, a provincial program that has assisted with funding.

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