Storytelling leads the way for inclusive policy design
Gayathri Shukla: “Storytelling remains one of the most powerful tools available to ask questions, learn from diverse voices and clarify our shared values”Thursday March 16, 2023
Two fast-growing New Brunswick employers are reimagining their approach to hiring as they something of a new problem in the province: more available jobs than qualified employees to fill them.
It’s a crunch being felt nationwide: Canada’s unemployment rate remained near its historic low in August 2022.
In Atlantic Canada, news reports frequently cite employers wooing employees at job fairs, a reversal of the traditional scenario. It’s a big change for companies used to collecting dozens of applications for every job opening.
The paradigm shift has taken some time to come to terms with, said Daniel Mills, New Brunswick’s deputy minister of post-secondary education, training and labour.
It has meant increasingly frequent contact with employers in a range of sectors, who suddenly realize the bulk of their workforce is nearing retirement and they have no plan at the ready to replace them.
At such meetings, mainly comprised of industry leaders nearing the end of their careers, Mills starts by having everyone in the room stand up. He asks those with no siblings to sit down, followed by those with one, then two and then three siblings.
Almost without fail, those remaining on their feet are among the oldest in the room and the most senior in the companies they lead.
It’s an exercise, he said, to demonstrate what Canadian economist and demographer David K. Foot projected in his 1997 book Boom, Bust and Echo: a surge of baby boomers driving new demand for long-term care and health care, leaving a glut of unfilled jobs in their wake.
“In theory, we all knew it was coming,” Mills said. “And just in the last two years, it has really come home to roost.”
The unexpected decrease in job seekers resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the problem, added the department’s assistant deputy minister, France Haché.
Mills said his department projects that about 120,000 new jobs will need to be filled in the next decade.
About 60 percent of this demand is expected to be met by young people coming out of the province’s education system.
It is anticipated that other additions to the labour force will be required to fill the remaining job openings: a mix of immigrants, older workers, and people moving off social assistance or from part- to full-time work.
“Out of that 40 percent, half of that is likely international immigration,” Mills said.
Intra-provincially, Haché noted, New Brunswick is competing with the other provinces facing a similar struggle.
Two different types of employers are now coming up with innovative ideas to get the better of those daunting numbers.
New Brunswick’s largest port and one of its most promising IT sector businesses are putting time, effort and money into intentional, inclusive strategies aimed at improving the talent pipeline—and the likelihood those new employees will stick around.
Fredericton-based PLATO Testing is the second software testing company founded by Keith McIntosh, who in 1997 established PQA Testing.
Testing is a broad term describing work to identify and report bugs or problems in software, websites, mobile apps and other digital products, including mortgage management and business resource planning software.
PQA, he said, is “a riff” on former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna’s call centre model of economic development: find a technology sector requiring lots of hands-on work that can be done by New Brunswickers who don’t necessarily have a university degree.
But unlike a call centre, PQA offers a “clear career path” to better, higher-paid jobs as demand for software testing soars.
McIntosh created PLATO in 2015, at a challenging time. A strong oil industry was still attracting New Brunswickers to lucrative work in the western provinces, and a provincial subsidy to hire 1,000 testers at a Moncton office for a Las Vegas testing company was not paying off as intended.
A homegrown company would be good for the province, McIntosh believed. Critically, he also saw it as his personal and corporate response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. He committed that PLATO would become staffed, led and eventually owned by First Nations, Inuit or Métis people.
McIntosh himself is not Indigenous. He was adopted into a “white family in Carleton County,” without knowing who his biological parents were.
Although he benefited from a stable, middle-class upbringing, McIntosh said, he was visibly “not completely white,” which set him apart in classes and on playgrounds in Western New Brunswick.
Anti-Indigenous racism plagues New Brunswick and pervades the highest office in the province, the entrepreneur believes.
“Racism is about ignorance and not knowing somebody else, so PLATO is about putting people together,” he said.
McIntosh’s strategy introduces an important nuance to the practice of simply hiring a set quota of Indigenous people for existing jobs.
“We can’t do that. [Such jobs] don’t tend to be in tech, in STEM jobs,” he said. “They stream themselves out. Kids who see social workers and teachers and nurses and whatever, that’s what you end up wanting to be when you grow up.”
PLATO aims to launch its graduates into good tech jobs after an intensive six-month training program specifically designed to teach Indigenous people to become product testers.
The first class of about 15 graduated in early 2016.
“We built the training program, and we hired them,” he said. “We put them together on teams with PQA staff and leaders.”
Since then, PLATO has repeated the process about 25 times across Canada.
Another critical part of the formula is having Indigenous people work together with other Indigenous people.
“When you go get a job, there are so many things you take for granted: There’s somebody here who looks like me, somebody here that knows my family,” McIntosh said. “But a First Nations or any marginalized community member doesn’t have those advantages. When they go to a job, they’re the only one that looks like them.”
So PLATO guarantees a full-time, salaried job to those who complete the training.
“And when you take that job offer you come in and work with the other 15 kids in your class, so you’re not alone,” he said. ”Now you’ve got some training, a job and a résumé and some experience. Some of the shackles come off, and you can better exert control on your own destiny.”
Mike DeGagné, whose academic expertise is in Indigenous post-secondary success, said PLATO’s approach loosely resembles a practice by some “western” post-secondary institutions who hire “cohorts” of Indigenous professors for the same reason.
DeGagné is Anishnabee from the Animakee Wa Zhing #37 First Nation in Ontario. He is also president and CEO of Indspire, the Indigenous charity that seeks to educate, connect, invest in and celebrate First Nations, Inuit and Métis students.
He said McIntosh’s concept is relatively new for non-Indigenous employers, but resembles what Indspire and other Indigenous organizations have been doing for a long time.
Indspire’s board, executive team and employees are mostly Indigenous, and the company maintains a similar hiring policy. The self-imposed obligation to train those who may not be qualified comes at the expense of efficiency and the organization’s bottom line.
“We are essentially a feeder for other employers who don’t want to commit to this kind of training,” DeGagné said. “So we spend the money to get someone certified in a particular area, and then they get hired away.”
PLATO is growing and now employs more than 50 Indigenous software testers full-time. The company has eight offices across Canada and major companies like Suncor in its client roster.
“What we really are providing for people is hope, not training,” McIntosh said. “Hope that there is a future that they can control on their own. They don’t have to be dependent.”
At the port of Saint John, a new wave of hiring is being driven by a tool first used to address a chronic labour problem in New Brunswick following the closure of paper mills and other large, industrial employers.
Today, the so-called Workforce Partnership has been deployed to deal with the opposite dilemma: a pending influx of quality jobs at the port with no obvious pool of people to fill them.
Craig Bell Estabrooks, president and CEO of Port Saint John, said the partnership was struck after a confluence of several demand-boosting moves.
A $205-million modernization, made alongside Emirati logistics multinational DP World, promises to open up new capacity and a stronger supply chain link running through Saint John.
With DP World in place, French shipping giant CMA CGM began calling at the port. In 2019, Calgary-based Canadian Pacific Rail re-established a link to its continent-spanning network that stretches as far south as Mexico.
It quickly became clear that a “generational” spike in labour demand would follow, and the port’s revival would hinge on finding the right staff.
What happened next, Bell Estabrooks said, is to the credit of the provincial department led by Labour Minister Trevor Holder, a Saint John MLA.
Holder and Mills, the department’s deputy minister, proposed a revision to the so-called Workforce Adjustment Committee. Traditionally, the task force quickly steps in to find new jobs for New Brunswickers left in the lurch by a shuttered lumber mill, smelter or other major industrial employer.
For the first time, such a committee would be seeking workers for available jobs, not jobs for available workers
“They took the model and flipped it entirely,” Bell Estabrooks said.
In early 2022, the stakes were raised even higher when German container shipping line Hapag-Lloyd announced it would add a second seasonal visit to its regular call at the port.
“This has taken us from an 87,000-container port last year to upwards of 140,000 or 150,000, just this year,” Bell Estabrooks said. “We are seeing monumental growth in the early stages of these services.”
The entire network of employers has had to respond in kind. Longshoremen, the Port Authority, Canadian Border Services Agency, tug operators, truckers and other key links in the supply chain would all have to bolster their ranks.
Supported by $450,000 in operating and start-up funding, the partnership is chaired by an independent third party, former Port Saint John board chair Allen Bodechon. The goal was to align those around the table to ensure the needs and priorities of every party were well understood.
For example, the International Longshoremen’s Association began expanding and improving its reserve list, the first step for workers to become full union members.
The ILA plays a key role in training its members and “white card” reservists.
In another major development, the province put up $480,000 to purchase two training simulators that will allow incoming longshoremen to hone their skills.
Importantly, the simulators facilitate training in more than a dozen skills related to port operations without hindering the tightly scheduled vessel work on the docks that demands fast turnaround times.
Holder said the spending was “critical to ensuring the port has the skilled workforce it needs to continue to be one of the fastest-growing container ports on North America’s east coast.”
“That was a big win, early on,” Bell Estabrooks said.
He calls finding an available workforce a long-term concern and credits private sector partners with being willing to break from tradition. DP World, for example “is an extremely progressive company that looks at safety, culture, workplace diversity,” he said.
The partnership members quickly realized they would also need help from local newcomer and community groups.
That’s where Christina Fowler, president and CEO of the Learning Exchange, came in. For four decades, the non-profit has helped youth and adults from Saint John’s poorest neighbourhoods improve their skills to get better jobs.
The Learning Exchange applies a wrap-around, incentive-based approach “to build a culture of work” in five priority neighbourhoods with high concentrations of poverty, Fowler said.
That work includes removing barriers to employment for clients and running several social enterprise businesses and classes that build the soft skills people need to succeed on the job.
At the same time, Fowler and her colleagues work to “demystify [for employers] what it means to be poor.”
“It used to be many large employers couldn’t see our learners as their team members,” she said.
That changed with her inclusion in the Workforce Partnership.
Fowler sits alongside “heavy-hitting” business leaders who value her input and share the goal of filling jobs that have the potential to break multi-generational cycles of poverty.
“We’ve done things a certain way for a long time,” Fowler said of her new partners. “But you’re not going to get enough people if you don’t lean into adaptive changes.”
The result has been a series of small and large tweaks to how hiring is done.
For example, people on the longshoremen union’s reserve list used to have to show up at the port every day to get on a call list for any work that came up that day. For those who lived too far to walk each day without a guarantee of a job, that was a real barrier to finding work, Fowler said.
The solution, devised around the partnership table, was a daily email that now goes out listing the work opportunities for the day.
As more ships, trains and trucks start running through the port, Fowler is confident her clients will be among the beneficiaries of the work.
She cites the partnership’s “strong leadership” in guiding the change and believes the model can easily be applied in other sectors or regions of the country facing a similar labour crunch.
“You need some high-level influencers to say ‘Yes, we’re doing this.’ That’s how you replicate it,” she said.
Mills’ department is carrying out a host of sector-specific “people plans” in health care, IT, forestry, education, food production and processing and other particularly strained areas.
That’s in addition to Working New Brunswick. With several hundred staff in 19 offices across the province, the team is designed to be a one-call troubleshooting service for workforce issues—including helping employers find people and people find employers.
“When you get people together, you come up with new ideas,” Mills said.
Among those employers, examples like PLATO and the Workforce Partnership are becoming necessarily “less novel,” he said.
“Plato is ahead by a country mile, and others could learn from them substantially,” he said. “It’s about pre-selection and training that comes with almost guaranteed employment or is tied to employment.”
The strategy comes with greater upfront training costs and requires careful consideration to define a pool of potential future employees.
“The employer is sticking their neck out there a bit and showing faith that this cohort of people is going to work,” Mills said.
“The employee, the student and the worker are much more tied together. I think there’s going to be much more of a mixing of the training and the employer. The employers are going to have to make it work.”