Aug '13

Primed for B.C.’s future

BC AMTA aims to fill mining industry skills gap

By Vivian Danielson

Since late 2009, the British Columbia Aboriginal Mine Training Association (BC AMTA) has helped more than 560 aboriginal candidates find employment and registered more than1,600 for training and job opportunities in B.C.’s mining and minerals sector. But so far at least, most of the new hires are working at operating mines in B.C.’s central interior, where the BC AMTA partnership model achieved initial success. The non-profit association has since launched initiatives to expand into remote and sparsely populated regions where many proposed new mines are situated.

Program finds a way in

Some efforts are modest, such as software donations to help candidates from isolated communities develop basic technology skills. Others are broad-based and long-term in scope, including a five-year funding agreement with Northern Development Initiative Trust, a regional economic development corporation focused on stimulating growth and job creation in central and northern B.C.

Janine North, CEO of the trust, says the agreement is a “good fit” for her organization, as these regions are resource-rich and have large aboriginal populations. “We were aware of the traction BC AMTA was getting with job placement in the south and saw the momentum shifting further north.”

A report from the Mining Industry Human Resources Council predicts that at least 13,000 new employees will be needed in the B.C. mining industry over the next 10 years, as aging workers retire. That translates to between 1,500 and 2,000 new hires per year.

The BC AMTA model – conceived in partnership with industry, aboriginal groups, government and educators – was designed to fill skills gaps and match aboriginal candidates with industry needs, ideally at a local level.

Regardless of which job a trainee eventually aims for, BC AMTA provides basic life skills training and supportive coaches who help trainees overcome barriers to success. In many cases, these barriers include an incomplete education, or a lack of transportation or child-care support. The candidates are then assessed to determine their skills, aptitudes and career goals.

“We work with individuals to find something that interests them and also test to find what jobs and training suit them best,” says BC AMTA CEO Laurie Sterritt.

While programs are demand-driven, Sterritt says the choice of career options is broad, “from site security and environmental monitoring to heavy trades and [heavy] equipment operators.”

Coaches play critical roles in Kamloops

The largest group of new hires to date is from the Kamloops office, where BC AMTA first set up shop. Sterritt said this reflects the fact that anchor-funding commitments came from major and mid-tier producers with producing mines in the region including New Gold and Teck Resources. Some candidates were hired by Teck’s Highland Valley Copper, one of the world’s largest open-pit mines, while others found jobs at New Gold’s New Afton copper-gold mine, recently developed as a block-caving operation beneath the site of a past-producing open pit.

Korah DeWalt, a member of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc signed up as a BC AMTA candidate in 2010, and was hired by New Gold as a summer student soon after. “BC AMTA provided me with coaching and financial support,” DeWalt says. “The support from the coach is the most important thing. The belief that someone believes in you is really motivating.”

DeWalt completed a bachelor’s degree in business in June 2011 and is presently employed by New Gold as a human resources and community relations generalist. “One of the great things about my role in community relations and human resources is seeing other people successfully complete the program,” DeWalt says.

New Gold has a 23 per cent aboriginal employment rate at New Afton and aims to meet or beat this at its advanced Blackwater gold project near Vanderhoof, in central B.C. Earlier this year, the company and BC AMTA were presented the inaugural BC Mining HR Diversity Award by the Mining Association of British Columbia.

Moving into less familiar territory

BC AMTA has also garnered attention for its 93 per cent retention rate for hired employees, a remarkable achievement considering that two thirds of the candidates transitioned from unemployment. But maintaining this rate in remote and northern regions could be a challenge, given weak capital markets for exploration and development companies and competition for skilled workers from neighbouring Alberta.

“It is more difficult to find people for the exploration side,” Sterritt said. “But people find they are able to transfer their skills to other jobs through networks and relationship they’ve built.”

BC AMTA is now tapping into a larger pool of potential candidates since opening up offices in Cranbrook, Merritt, New Aiyansh (a Nisga’a community in northwestern B.C.) and Williams Lake. Candidates from 150 bands are currently represented, of which 122 are B.C.-based, with other candidates travelling to B.C. for training. Sterritt says there is a lot of interest from women, citing female participation well above the industry norm at 37 per cent.

Earlier this year, the Williams Lake office celebrated its first graduating class, with 37 candidates from four local First Nations communities receiving certificates for successfully completing the Mining Skills for an Entry-Level Workforce program. More than 20 went on to BC AMTA’s Heavy Equipment Operators (HEO) program, with women comprising one fifth of total enrolment. Job offers came in for some before the HEO candidates graduated.

Candidates also filled positions that include environmental monitors, core-cutters, exploration field assistants and various entry-level posts.

Sharon McLeod, BC AMTA’s northeast regional manager, says the flexibility of the organization’s model allows programs to be delivered beyond regional offices, as in Anahim Lake in the Carrier/Chilcotin Region, where 105 Ulkatcho First Nations members signed up as candidates. “We are always looking for ways to meet a community’s need in a way that works for them,” she says.

BC AMTA is also expanding into northeastern B.C.’s coal fields. Twelve partners including BC Hydro and Walter Energy joined Teck and other companies to help cover the costs for 20 local aboriginal candidates to take the association’s Environmental Technician Certificate program in Chetwynd. “Environmental training programs are always very popular and fully subscribed,” Sterritt says. “Combining traditional knowledge of the land and water with industry-approved technical training provides a benefit both to the communities and the companies.”

Through band offices, the Internet and word of mouth, BC AMTA is starting to attract candidates from remote and isolated communities.

“Our coaches pull out the stops to bust down barriers in these regions,” Sterritt says. “We bring training to remote communities or we assist candidates to travel to urban areas for training.”

Spreading the word

BC AMTA is preparing to release a report documenting results of its initiatives to date. Sterritt says the program has proven itself a strong business case, with costs averaging $15,000 per candidate leading to average salaries of $53,000 per year for hired employees.

The Internet has helped BC AMTA share the success stories of its graduates. At BCAMTA.ca, the organization promotes the personal, community and societal benefits that no financial accounting can capture. Publishing graduate testimonies has also led to many word-of-mouth referrals, Sterritt notes. “We’re proud of that. It shows our program is making a difference in people’s lives.”

BC AMTA has steadily increased the number of industry partners, but Sterritt says more are needed: “We’d love to see more companies do business with First Nations through a new and respectful approach.”

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