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York Region ‘business with a heart’ trains builders — and builds lives

September 9, 2020

August 31, 2020 by Kim Zarzour

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Blue Door’s new construction training program combats homelessness

There’s an old saying: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a life.

A new initiative in York Region is putting that philosophy to work — construction work, to be exact.

It’s called “construction with a purpose” and it aims to teach not fishing, but skilled trades, as way out of homelessness and poverty.

Called ‘Construct’, this innovative employment social enterprise provides training, experience and support to help vulnerable people find long-term, well-paying careers in the construction trades.

The project is managed by Blue Door, a York Region non-profit that provides housing and support services.

CEO Michael Braithwaite says it’s a solution to two intersecting challenges: a growing demand for skilled employees in the construction industry, and a need for better-paying jobs for low-income individuals to help them pay for housing.

Statistics show you need to earn $24 an hour to be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment in York Region.

At the same time, Braithwaite says, 62 per cent of contractors in Ontario experienced a shortage of skilled workers in the last year.

Construct is an eight-week program in which cohorts of eight spend two weeks training at the new centre operated by LiUNA Local 506, at Major Mackenzie Drive and Hwy. 404. 

The first session gets underway Sept. 10. Organizers are looking for motivated young people who are able to work in Canada, have Gr. 10 education, and are keen to make a change.

They will be connected to employment opportunities with new expertise in general labour, site cleanup, energy retrofits, painting, landscape and snow removal.

Merissa Preston, manager of partnership and business development with LiUNA, tells of one young father who took part in a similar program — Building Up — in Toronto several years ago. 

“He was really struggling to support his family, and now he is working on the Eglinton LRT and he’s en route to (becoming) a journey person.”

As part of their training, participants learn skills with tools and work on projects for Blue Door, such as benches, picnic tables and installation of the shelter’s basketball nets, she says.

“This way they feel they are giving back and their skills are put to work on something useful.”

After two weeks of training in Richmond Hill, participants complete a six-week practicum in real construction jobs where they can apply what they learned.

Braithwaite hopes to see 70 per cent of participants go on to apprenticeship, and 80 per cent find sustainable employment.

Eventually, Braithwaite says, Construct will be more than a “business with a heart,” but a full-scale, for-profit contractor providing residential and commercial construction and property services, at the same time funnelling funds into Blue Door programs and lifting people out of poverty.

YMCA will provide wraparound supports throughout the program with additional support for 12 months afterwards including health and wellness check-ins, resume writing, and other life skills where needed.

“We don’t want the eight weeks to go by and we wash our hands and call it a day,” says Rudi Genovese, senior manager, social enterprise. “We want to help them back on their feet, but, more importantly, to stay on their feet.”

“This program allows our YMCA to work toward our vision of helping everyone to shine and grow within their communities,” adds Ian Nyman general manager, York Region Employment.

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