How do we successfully recruit and retain more Indigenous Youth in the skilled construction trades?

16 Nov, 2017

To answer this question we need to start a dialogue on the barriers that many Indigenous Peoples and youth face; from questioning whether to go union or non-union, figuring out the complicated world of construction and the trades, deciding on residential, commercial or industrial construction, choosing a trade, and then finally understanding the apprenticeship system to plan a career towards Journeyperson status.

The majority of Indigenous youth live in urban centers where there is more opportunity for them to work in a trade; in the prairies there is ample opportunity but little progress to move our young people through an apprenticeship. I am also seeing companies that supply labour to construction sites employing our people in the entry-level non-professional work that is required.

I am beginning to field questions from Indigenous workers at many construction work sites on why after two years of my work developing Indigenous labour they are not seeing progress and they are not advancing in their trade. Many suppliers of labour do not have a plan for attrition. This provides a disservice to our people and in my view, wastes the time of an excellent tradesperson who shows up for work every day and has done so for a few years. In most cases these workers are no farther off than when they first started because there is no plan in place to reward the best workers, and no opportunity for them to advance in an apprenticeship.

In the north, many have the attitude that they do not want to leave their communities but still want to try be successful in a trade. This limits their access to a key component of training for a successful career in the trades, the key component being apprenticeship. They take the training that is given to them in their isolated communities like heavy equipment training or industrial mechanics, but with no jobs anywhere close by to make the training a stepping-stone for success.

Our people are often not adequately supported and prepared. I was once working with a contractor to find five northern residents a job in a northern mine.  The candidates were students that graduated from an industrial mechanics training program provided by a northern college. Out of the five students, four men and one woman made the final cut to move into the Millwright positions required. We then sent them for a drug test as a requisite for working on the site. Two men did not have ID to take the test and the other two men did not show because they knew they were going to fail the test. The final person, a woman, who today is a fourth-year apprentice in the trade and will soon do one final test to be a Journeyperson; completed all of her requirements to be successful in this trade including moving all over the province where she was dispatched for work. She has worked for over a dozen contractors as an Apprentice. She took away the blanket stereotype that all northern people won’t travel for work. In my view, when an Apprentice ‘gets it’, he or she is in his or her second-year apprenticeship and understands what it means to advance in a trade. I still wonder what happened to the other four people.

We need to ensure there are a number of things put in place to even begin a process of training young Indigenous people in the trades.

Work has to be available with a contractor or more importantly, an owner who is committed to ensuring youth development in the trades. Any training that is developed needs to include a job at the end of the training.  The people that work in this field need to be officers of hope and not quash hope with no jobs available at the end of training.

The workplace needs to be ready for these young people. There is racism and discrimination at these sites. The people in management are still the older non-Indigenous people and are still trying to get their own people in the system. Indigenous people need to be seen as a group of people to develop and work with especially now in the business world and in this time of reconciliation.

Those are the changes we need to see in the industry.

In our communities we need to give our youth hope in whatever dreams they may have. If they are going to make it in the trades, they have to be taught to be strong and brave to take on anything that is sent their way. Many young Indigenous people are suffering as a result of the effects of the residential school system and we need to break this negative cycle that was developed in our past generations.

We can assist these young people by mentoring and guiding them through the steps to be a Journeyperson in the trade that they want to get into. If they have all of the right characteristics of the best tradesperson then they should be allowed to follow whatever dream they want to achieve. As Olympic Medal winner Alwyn Morris-Mohawk said, “If you have it in you to dream, you have it in you to succeed.”

Our young people need to be prepared by ensuring they have their grade 12 diploma, can read, can pass a drug test, have a driver’s license/vehicle and be willing to work all over the place. Where ever the work as an Apprentice takes them.

We have to realize and make part of our everyday thinking that the Indigenous community is the fastest growing population in all of Canada. To do nothing will result in a massive failing on all of our parts. We all need to be a part of the solution.

What role will you play in ensuring the success of Indigenous youth in our country?


Downloadable Materials

This leaflet is designed for Indigenous communities; providing awareness of the Building Trades Unions and what we have to offer.
Build Together – Indigenous Unions Leaflet

This booklet is on Indigenous Allyship, a booklet that is available to our Unions, Contractors, Employers & Members.
Build Together – IndigAlly Booklet


Build Together, Indigenous Peoples of the Building Trades will soon be releasing two documents;  one is a booklet on Indigenous Allyship, a booklet that will be available to our Unions, Contractors, Employers & Members. The second is a brochure designed for Indigenous communities; providing awareness of the Building Trades Unions and what we have to offer. If you are on our blog email list we will send you PDF copies and hard copies at your request.

In our next blog post…we will discuss the importance of Mentorship, and highlight some successful mentorship projects and initiatives happening across Canada.