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Small business owners who can’t find the talent they need might consider teaming up with local educators to help fill their labour gap.

That was the strategy Aero-Safe Technologies Inc took when the Fort Erie, Ont.-based manufacturer of high-precision parts for industries including aerospace needed workers with specialized skills to be able to use computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing software.

Chief executive officer Tony Rodway turned to his local district school board to help find the talent he needed among students.

He built a co-operative education program with the District School Board of Niagara under which students began learning about manufacturing processes in the classroom, and then applied those skills at Aero-Safe.

That started back in 1999. These days, seven of Aero-Space’s 35-person team working on the manufacturing floor have come from that co-op program.

Each semester, 10 students, accompanied by a teacher, show up at Aero-Safe twice a week to job-shadow workers on machinery; two students also work as apprentices every day for one semester alongside Aero-Safe employees.

“It gives us an excellent opportunity to screen who we might want to hire,” says Nick Rodway, the son of Mr. Rodway and Aero-Safe’s general manager, who oversees its 50 full-time employees.

“We’ve had 250 students through the company since we started our partnership. We have helped turn them into skilled trade workers.”

There are many advantages for businesses, says Ann Frost, a professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business.

“From the business perspective, companies don’t have to search for employees. They have access to labour that has been bridged into the system. They save money on advertising for open vacancies and they don’t have to fill jobs overseas. The corporate-educational partnership can be a positive relationship,” Prof Frost says.

“The company spends money on the equipment and helps design the education curriculum, and the students receive relevant training.”

The benefits run two ways: Small businesses not only help grow the talent they need but also give students access to opportunities and resources they might not otherwise have, adds Kevin Graham, special initiatives facilitator for the Niagara district school board.

“Students get to learn with state-of-the-art tools,” Mr. Graham says. “One tool might cost $3-[million] or $4-million. We simply don’t have the resources for that.”

Mr. Graham says students who participate in such co-op programs are more successful.

“Educational partnerships with companies give students focus and it gives them a career,” he says. “They have higher high-school graduation rates. And we find more students work in industries where we have these programs. Students can decide that they like the industry and focus on it. Or they can move on. They also often get summer jobs or apprenticeships after working with a company.”

It doesn’t always work: Educators want to be sure that students will acquire skills that benefit not only the company but also themselves, Prof. Frost says.

“The big danger of these corporate-educational partnerships is the educational focus could be too narrow and only focus on the corporate entity’s needs, rather than the broader needs of the student,” Prof. Frost says.

If that issue is dealt with, however, Prof. Frost says the students get to learn in an environment that educational facilities often can’t replicate – and the business owner also benefits.

For businesses interested in forming such partnerships, Mr. Graham suggests contacting local schools to set up co-operative and apprenticeship programs.

Dan Hendriks, a construction manager at Thorold, Ont.-based Mountainview Homes has been partnering with the school board for three years and says it has been a good business decision.

“We initially got involved because we wanted to help the students learn,” he says. “The booming housing market led to a skilled labour shortage. Our involvement meant we had people already trained who were able to fill labour needs that were in short supply.”

Developing students’ skills at Mountainview, the largest local homebuilder in the Niagara region with 60 full-time employees, often means having the school set up a trailer on building sites for students.

A local school teacher instructs courses on-site, and students also job-shadow builders and skilled trade workers, such as masons, plumbers and electricians. About 30 students come through the program each year. They are exposed to all phases of a home build, from its design to completion.

“Partnering with the schools gives students the skills they need,” Mr. Hendriks says. “It also gives them the opportunity to say this isn’t for them. And, if we don’t hire them, then we’ve put students in contact with tradespeople who might be in need of their skills.

“It is a great opportunity for the students and for us.”

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