Participants in the Work Connect program received laptop computers from instructor Norm Kershaw, far left, earlier this week at the Centre for Learning Alternatives.

Removing barriers

Work Connect program makes powerful impact in first year

When Jarad Gouschuk found out about a new employment program being offered through School District No. 57’s Centre for Learning Alternatives, he wasted no time in registering.

“I just jumped on the opportunity,” said the 19-year-old Gouschuk, who’d been having difficulty breaking into the job market because of a lack of experience and certifications. “And also just a lack of confidence in self and workplace interviews and things like that. The idea of the interview is scary, but more the lack of experience and not knowing what to expect.”

The fully-funded program is for individuals 18 and older. Called Work Connect, it’s being run in a partnership between SD 57 and Workforce Development Consulting Services of Northern BC (WDCS North), a Prince George-based company led by CEO Lori Forgeron. Thanks to financial support from the Government of Canada through the Canada-British Columbia Workforce Development Agreement, participants don’t have to cover any costs themselves.

Gouschuk – interested in becoming a mechanic, or possibly an electrician or welder – became part of the first cohort of 13 students. He and the rest of the group began the program in February and most have now completed it. Along the way, they met twice per week for three-hour sessions at the Centre for Learning Alternatives. Then, after COVID-19 restrictions brought an end to group gatherings, students and instructor Norm Kershaw shifted to an online model.

WDCS North’s program development manager is Kyla Kershaw. She describes Work Connect as “an employment services program that is customized for people who have challenges attaching to the workforce. It can be anything from low educational attainment, financial hardship, mental health and addictions challenges, lack of updated skills or training – you name it. Anything that represents a serious and significant barrier that impedes their ability to attach meaningfully to the workforce.

“It’s always individualized and it’s always customized,” she added. “We created all of the programming so we can really stand behind what we offer. That gives us the ability to adapt it for the different client-group needs.”

Based on their employment objectives, participants receive various types of training and certification. Gouschuk now holds WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System), TDG (Transportation of Dangerous Goods) and Hazard Assessment Training certification.

“That’s one thing that I really wanted, because there’s that price barrier,” he said. “It’s like, ‘If I don’t have a job, I can’t really pay for those certifications, and if I haven’t had a job, I can’t get a job.’”

Other types of training and certification offered include forklift operation, H2S Alive, First Aid and FoodSafe.

Students in the Work Connect program also go through things like needs assessments, interest inventories, employment readiness scales to measure their progress, employment counselling, action planning and career decision-making.

“Our goal here is really, at the end of the day, to create job search experts out of each and every one of our clients,” Kyla Kershaw said. “Our hope is that if they learn well enough with us they won’t have to come back to an organization to update a resume or get help with it.”

Earlier this week, Norm Kershaw presented students from the first Work Connect cohort with laptop computers to recognize their achievements and success in the program. The laptops – made available through the Canada-British Columbia Workforce Development Agreement – are meant to serve as a tool for students as they conduct job searches or do employment-related tasks.

“I think it’s awesome – I’m going to make good use out of this thing,” said program participant Simon Zorzi, an 18-year-old who is considering a career in carpentry. “I’m very excited for the laptop.”

Once students have completed their training, WDCS North continues to work on their behalf.

“We have an employer coordinator and they support us in developing job opportunities wherever possible,” said Kyla Kershaw. “We don’t have employers in our pocket, per se, who are already signed on in having to hire our folks but we have had such a demonstrated record of producing qualified candidates that oftentimes we are contacted by employers. We have a broad employer network and our employer partnership coordinator really works actively with these employers.”

SD 57’s Curtis MacDonald, principal at the Centre for Learning Alternatives, sees great value in the Work Connect program.

“It’s really about building hope, it’s about building prosperity, it’s about building their confidence and engaging them in a way that these students, these young adults, can transition into the community and realize that they have a set of transferrable skills and a confidence about them that they can actually walk in and engage with an employer,” he said. “That’s really, from my observations, how powerful this program is in our community.”

MacDonald is already looking ahead to next school year and the potential for growing the Work Connect program.

“This was the trial run and it’s been very successful,” he said. “The goal next year is to increase this program and look at, ‘Can we engage younger kids?’ Particularly the 17-year-olds so that we can start working with them at an earlier age to identify their work skills, their employability skills and sort of pre-package who they are so they’re ready for the workforce.”

For more information on WDCS North, visit their website at www.workforcedevelopmentconsulting.ca.