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Tapping a fresh northern resource Add to ...

Here’s the first thing you should know about Jamie Saulnier: His Manitoba-based construction company is going gangbusters. We’re talking crazy growth – 14-fold revenue growth in four years, or enough to make the 37-year-old former welder very popular with his bankers.

And the second? He is learning Cree. Not Mandarin, or Hindi or any of those other languages that sharp businessmen are supposed to learn to get ahead these days, but Cree.

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For Mr. Saulnier, the growth can be explained by the Cree. For the past year, he has stepped away from daily operations of Connotec Inc., the 100-employee Winnipeg company he founded 10 years ago, to develop and promote one of the most ambitious first nations apprenticeship programs in Canada.

“Jamie is a breath of fresh air,” said Marcel Moody, a band councillor with the remote Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, about 800 kilometres north of Winnipeg. “You will see a great many companies copying him in the near future.”

During a labour crunch four years ago, Mr. Saulnier felt the familiar pressure to hire workers from abroad. Some tycoons in the industrial construction business even took him aside and told him he could only win bids on massive infrastructure jobs if he had a large and secure labour pool. And the only way to assure that – at least as conventional thinking goes – was to launch an overseas recruitment program.

But Mr. Saulnier isn’t exactly conventional. He saw an untapped source of labour much closer to home.

“I grew up in a small Northern Ontario town where I was surrounded by first nations communities, where there were very good men and women who are just wishing for a job,” he explained in an interview. “Against the advice of business advisers and industry colleagues, we decided to seek them out.”

First nations job-creation programs have been around for decades, but most fizzle due to under-participation of workers or over-participation of politicians.

For example, Manitoba Hydro’s $1-billion Wuskwatim dam project, near Mr. Moody’s home in Nelson House, was touted as a historic plan for its promise to hire and train hundreds of aboriginals in the area when it was announced in 2006. Since then, however, it has become the subject of protest and bitter political in-fighting for falling short of its aboriginal employment targets.

After three years of studying the often futile efforts of government and industry, Mr. Saulnier came up with the First Nations Apprenticeship Program, a new division of Connotec that he hopes will transform the way Canadian companies do business and capitalize on the country’s fastest-growing demographic.

Over the past three years, Connotec has invested over $400,000 in the program – no small sum for a company that pulled in $6.7-million last year.

Connotec’s program starts with a recruitment drive in a Manitoba community. Currently, in Norway House Cree Nation, Connotec is flooding radio airwaves with ads offering jobs to residents should the company win a contract to build the community’s sewer treatment lagoon. Next week, Mr. Saulnier and others will begin interviewing applicants, looking more at attitude and keenness than job experience.

The most promising are then hired as general labourers and spend the next two months shadowing every trade the company offers, from welder to pipefitter, millwright to electrician. When the two months are up, each worker will choose the job they fancied most.

Connotec then works with the provincial government to plan and pay for all necessary training. Mr. Saulnier also works intensely with local chiefs and elders to ensure that recruits learn any life skills they might be lacking.

“Now the entire unstoppable team of our company, government and local aboriginal leaders are ready to stand behind that person … and do everything in our power to make sure they become a new member of Canada’s work force,” Mr. Saulnier said.

It may sound simple, but that’s only because he has been laying the groundwork for years.

“I have spent the months of my life sitting in mice-ridden shacks or little fishing boats in Northern Manitoba, listening to aboriginal leaders talk about the problems up there,” he said. “That’s why this is working: I didn’t just go in and dictate some useless program to them.”

The recruits notice the difference immediately. “We hear companies talk big like this all the time,” said Jack Spence of Nelson House, who recently finished the program. “But it’s just talk. Connotec actually trains and hires and sees you through to a journeyman ticket. It’s good, steady money – $40 an hour for some jobs. A lot of men here have no money and no college. This will get them off the couch.”

After one year, eight workers have completed the apprenticeship program. Connotec’s first nations liaison, Curtis Lobster, has lined up another 15. Within a year, the company hopes to add another 75 to 100 recruits to the payroll – ambitious goals for any medium-sized enterprise.

And with the likes of Vale Inco, HudBay Minerals and Manitoba Hydro investing a combined $10-billion in Northern Manitoba over the coming years, Connotec doesn’t anticipate problems finding good-paying work for the recruits.

Demand will come from a new generation of contracts, similar to the Wuskwatim deal, that will require companies to employ a certain number of first nations workers.

“A lot of them stipulate 2 or 3 per cent,” Mr. Lobster noted. “Jamie and Connotec, they are pushing for 50-per-cent first nation involvement. Apprentice by apprentice, they are changing lives.”

It’s just good business, Mr. Saulnier said. Without a single overseas flight, he has managed to solve his labour shortage, make his company infinitely more attractive during bids, and feel good in the process.

“After spending so much time in first nations communities, getting to know people there, this has become very personal to me,” he said. “It’s my personal passion and it’s the future of this company.”

Follow on Twitter: @Nut_Graf

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