Monday, September 8, 2008

Labour shortage? Bring in the Jamaicans

Dudley Reid, who worked as an automotive painter in Jamaica, puts his knowledge into practice at Fender's Autobody & Paint in Kelowna, B.C.
(Jeff Bassett for The Globe and Mail)

An agreement between Okanagan College and the island nation is giving students the opportunity to work in high-demand trades

From Globe and Mail

September 8, 2008 at 9:47 AM EDT
VANCOUVER — As a newcomer to Kelowna, B.C., Dudley Reid often gets asked by curious locals where he's from. When he tells them he's from Kingston, Jamaica, more questions usually follow.

"Tell us about Jamaica," they ask him, since it's a rare occurrence in the city to encounter anyone from the distant island country.

Or at least until now.

Mr. Reid, 38, is among the first of hundreds of Jamaican students to attend Kelowna's Okanagan College, recruited to help fill a shortage of skilled workers in the Okanagan and the rest of the province.

Under an experimental, "interprovincial refresher" program, the college expects to train and find job placements for between 300 and 400 Jamaican students this school year in high-demand trades such as culinary arts, automotive collision repair and carpentry.

The sudden influx of students from Jamaica is bringing cultural diversity to the campus and local work force, which has never before had a significant Caribbean population.

"It's definitely changing the cultural landscape," Okanagan College president Jim Hamilton said. "Certainly as you go around the community, we see many more people of Caribbean origin than we ever did before."

About 16 months ago, the college, which has a full-time student population of more than 7,000, didn't have one Jamaican student, he said.

But since it began recruiting students from Jamaica, a country where skilled labour is high but jobs are scarce, the Jamaican population on campus has started to swell.
The unusual relationship between Okanagan College and Jamaica was initiated by Michael Patterson, a Jamaican-born marketing professor at the college.

Seeing an opportunity to fill the needs of both local employers and tradespeople in his native country, Prof. Patterson believed the college could help bridge that gap.
"It's a win-win," he said, adding that the college is selecting only highly skilled students who will adjust well to life in Canada. "When you take people in with no skill, people who are desperate ... that is where you get problems, and we're looking for a particular type of people coming in."

In June, the college began training the first group of 37 Jamaican students under the program, including Mr. Reid. Two weeks ago, it started training a second group of 40.

Students in the program are screened by the Jamaican government and the college before they can enroll, ensuring that they have at least six years of experience in the field they intend to study. They then attend 16 weeks of instruction at Okanagan College, broken up by 16 weeks of paid work in the field.

At the end of the training, students take a test to earn their Red Seal certification, which qualifies them as journeymen in Canada. They then have the option of applying to become permanent Canadian residents through a provincial program that accelerates immigration for qualified skilled workers.

Mr. Reid, who worked as an automotive painter in Jamaica, has already completed his first eight weeks of in-class instruction in collision repairs. He is now putting that knowledge into practise at Fender's Autobody & Paint in Kelowna.

"It was just phenomenal the training that went on at the college," Mr. Reid said, explaining that he enrolled in the program to further his skills. "I wanted to expand on my own knowledge of what I do, get some formal training and also see how things are done in a [developed] country."

Although living costs are much higher here, Mr. Reid said his current wage of $23 an hour is "quite a bit more" than what he would earn at home.

Like many of the students, he aims to seek permanent residence when he is finished the program, and apply for his wife and eight-year-old son to join him.
His employer, Norm Cross, said he's happy with his trainee as well.

"It's worked out awesome. He's good at what he does for us, and he filled that void of trying to find people," Mr. Cross said. "There's just not a lot of journeymen tradespeople out there."

In the nearby city of Penticton, auto repair shop owner Ray Steinke said he has also found some relief by employing three of the college's Jamaican students.
Mr. Steinke said he had been looking for three years for skilled employees to work at his shop, without luck.

The Jamaican students have jumped right in, performing major collision repairs, painting and just about every other job that other employees do.
There are, however, some minor cultural differences that the students and their employers have had to work through. Most notably, Mr. Steinke said the Jamaicans use different trade terminology, such as "chassis" to describe the frame of a vehicle or "running board" instead of rocker panel.

Meanwhile, the students have had to adjust to the change in climate and lifestyle in the Okanagan.

"I normally love soccer, but where I'm living there's not much of that going on," said one of Mr. Steinke's student workers, Eric Pickett, 28. "Canadians seem to like volleyball and hockey."

Mr. Reid added, laughing: "I'm not getting enough reggae music."

Cultural differences aside, the community has welcomed the fresh pool of foreign students, Mr. Hamilton said.

And the college is already looking to expand the interprovincial refresher program to other Caribbean locales, including Trinidad, Guyana and Antigua, in the coming years.

And Prof. Patterson, who is also an honorary consular of Jamaica, does not foresee any problems assimilating the inrush. He sees Kelowna as merely a hub from which students will disperse to other parts of the province as they enter the work force, avoiding the creation of what he calls "ethnic ghettos" in the Okanagan.

Besides, he added, the students are eager to adapt to life in Canada. "They love it here," he said. "They think this is paradise. They're willing to work hard."


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