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Counting on first nations to fill a looming labour shortfall

Laurie Sterritt, executive director of the B.C. Aboriginal Mine Training Association (BC AMTA), stands in a forest near her home in Vancouver October 12, 2012.

Jeff Vinnick/Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

With their decades in operation and hundreds of employees, mines can be the economic lifeblood of a region. Premier Christy Clark's 2011 jobs plan calls for eight new mines and nine expanded operations by 2015.

Even if only some of the projects go ahead, the mining sector expects a labour crunch. The existing work force is getting old and not enough young people are coming into the sector to fill the gap.

To ease the shortage, the mining industry has been stepping up efforts to recruit women, immigrants and aboriginal workers. One such initiative is the British Columbia Aboriginal Mine Training Association, a federally funded program launched in 2009.

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Against that backdrop, Chinese-backed HD International recently obtained permission to bring 200 workers under the Temporary Foreign Worker program to work at its proposed Murray River coal project in Tumbler Ridge. Other proposals could bring more foreign workers to the region.

Labour groups have said the province could have done more to ensure local workers get the jobs.

Laurie Sterritt is the founding executive director of BCAMTA and a member of the B.C. Mining HR Task Force.

What is the mandate of BCAMTA?

We know that there is a high concentration of aboriginal communities in and around mines. And very often there is a skills gap or an education gap between the needs of industry and the communities.

Steritt2

So we have partnered with companies, the government, first nation communities and educators to address that gap – and ensure that local participants have the skills and experience needed to take jobs in the sector.

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How is that going? Do you have a target you're trying to hit?

At this stage, we have more than 365 people placed in jobs. That was in a short period of time and we more than doubled our [original] target, which was 148. Our target is to place 650 more people in sustainable jobs over the next 2 1/2 years.

We are a demand-driven program. We work backward from the jobs that we know are going to become available – and we recruit, assess and train individuals who have the aptitude for those jobs and then we work toward placing them in those jobs.

Sometimes the amount of support and training those people get is quite minimal – it could be a matter of weeks – and some of them are with us for a longer period of time.

We've had an entrepreneurial program that was eight months long, we have had a human resource program that was six months long, we've had an underground mining program that takes eight weeks and everything in between.

A company developing a coal mine in B.C. has applied to bring workers to Canada under the Temporary Foreign Worker program. What do you think of that development?

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Speaking from my perspective with the task force, which has done research into labour force issues ... all of the statistics and plans point to not just a small shortage, but a really intense shortage of workers. So there are efforts industry wide to attract and recruit skilled workers. There's a focus on attracting women workers, and aboriginal workers and immigrant workers. Even if you put the effort toward all three of those areas and get the maximum return for your efforts, we're still not going to have enough workers to fill the need if all of the [proposed] mines come on stream in B.C.

Is sufficient effort being made to tap the aboriginal workforce before looking overseas for labour?

In the mining sector, there is a good focus and good efforts being made. If the need is current and those companies need the workers today – I couldn't say there are enough skilled aboriginal workers to fill those jobs. If we make a real concerted effort with BCAMTA and other efforts – will there be people in two or three years? I think so. By supporting an organization like ours, I do hope we can catch up.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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