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Calgary commerce to implement third phase this fall

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By Gene Kosowan, Sweetgrass Writer, CALGARY







A proposal by the Calgary Chamber of Commerce calls for tackling a looming labour shortfall by facilitating more Aboriginal economic opportunities.

The organization’s Aboriginal Workforce Initiative, outlined in a research paper dubbed Completing the Circle, and released March 26, makes the case for solving the upcoming labour shortage by recognizing opportunities that will not only diversify the workplace but curb the employment challenges faced by the province’s Aboriginal population.

“Assessing the labour shortage has continued to be a top priority for our members,” said Ben Brunnen, the Calgary Chamber of Commerce’s manager of policy and research, who co-wrote the paper.

“There still exists a need and demand for developing workers, especially in light of this upcoming labour shortage. We recognize the Aboriginal population as an untapped source of labour and it naturally makes good business sense to do just that.”

While the provincial government is forecasting a labour shortage of 111,000 within seven years, the chamber has identified the Aboriginal population as Alberta’s largest untapped source of labour. The paper also cited Aboriginal employment rates as being 10.6 per cent lower than the rest of the population, which, if addressed, would inject up to 14,000 workers into the province’s economy.

In the Calgary region alone, the demographics also sway more favourably towards more Aboriginal involvement, since its median age is roughly 27 years, nine years lower than the overall median age in the city.
The chamber’s business case identifies Aboriginal youth as a source of skilled and reliable workers, cites numerous advantages of a diversified workplace, incentives for corporate social responsibility, and the reduction of social costs as a result of increased Aboriginal labour.

The biggest challenge, however, is education. According to a 2006 census, 44 per cent of Aboriginal people don’t have a high school diploma, twice the rate of non-Aboriginals. Furthermore, the chamber links the lack of education with low employment and a number of other factors including poverty, addiction and increasing health problems. Additional barriers to employment include a lack of understanding of cultural values and working styles between mainstream businesses and Aboriginals.

“If companies are looking to hire and retain Aboriginal workers, they also need training to realize the realities confronting Aboriginals as they relate to mainstream businesses,” said Brunnen. “They have to understand Aboriginal communities and cultural distinctions in how they may manifest in the workplace. It’s not necessary to accommodate them all the time, you just have to understand where they’re coming from. It’s a two-way street in that Aboriginals also have to understand the work environment.”

Calling for a more holistic approach to Aboriginal education, hiring and retention and targeting the youth, the initiative, in conjunction with the chamber’s Aboriginal Opportunities Committee, have already undergone two phases of the project, with the release of the position paper and hosting a day-long symposium designed to boost labour outcomes.

The third phase calls for executing the plan this fall.
“It will involve doing business and partnering with First Nations communities and assisting businesses by connecting them with Aboriginal communities,” said Brunnen.

“There are lots of great ideas in Aboriginal communities in that they have good resources and business plans, but the trick is access to good capital. Those are some of the issues discussed in the report and symposium. Now, it’s time for action; that’s where we’re at right now.”