Immigrant and youth training lays foundation for Brook Restoration’s Ottawa expansion

General contractor draws on community programs that give Canadian experience to immigrant workers
Brook restoration
Editor's Note

An earlier version of this story referenced a contract between Brook Restoration and an Ottawa-based organization. In fact, the contract has not yet been awarded. The reference has been removed.

A Toronto construction firm has broken into the Ottawa market with the help of some local training programs and a capital-first approach.

General contractor Brook Restoration has been setting up its Ottawa operations for the past three years, but 2018 “is a big year” for the firm, according to local general manager Bara Al-Obaidy. Last summer, Brook’s Ottawa crew stood at around 35 people. With a new building on Triole Street and team of nearly 50 workers today, Al-Obaidy says he’s hoping to get that number to between 80 and 100 by the peak summer season.

Al-Obaidy, who’s been in the role for about 18 months, says talent recruitment has been an obstacle for the Toronto-based company. Unions are running at “max capacity” and don’t have workers to spare, he says, and ads in papers and online were coming up dry.

Eventually, he surmised that the problem wasn’t with where he was recruiting, it’s that spare talent wasn’t there.

“We started thinking outside of the box and trying to get people into the industry,” he says.

To fuel his expansion plans, Al-Obaidy has turned to local skill-building programs for talent recruitment. One of the programs he’s tapped has been Future Builders, which provides training and pre-apprenticeships to youth with barriers to employment.

Another has been Power of Trades, a YMCA program that gives newcomers to Canada the soft skills – interview prep, resume writing and safety certifications – needed to enter the country’s trades industries.

Canadian experience

Power of Trades began in 2011 and is free for immigrants to Canada. Roughly 45 people go through the program each year, according to job developer Jo Moffatt.

After six weeks of classroom training at the YMCA, which can include guest speakers such as Al-Obaidy himself, participants have the chance to do a co-op placement in a trade of their choice.

That’s critical for finding work as an immigrant, Moffatt says.

“So often, newcomers have tons of experience and so much to offer and they just keep running up against that no-Canadian-experience barrier. Finding that person who’s willing to give them their first shot is incredibly helpful."

“So often, newcomers have tons of experience and so much to offer and they just keep running up against that no-Canadian-experience barrier. Finding that person who’s willing to give them their first shot is incredibly helpful,” she says.

Co-op placements are covered by the Workplace Safety & Insurance Board and earn participants high school credits, but they’re typically unpaid, which can be difficult for participants supporting families in part-time jobs.

Faced with two candidates from the program who wanted to maintain their evening shifts in a kitchen while on placement, Moffatt says that Al-Obaidy opted to give paid placements to mitigate these conflicts. Power of Trades has benefitted immensely from gestures like these and the effectiveness of training Brook Restoration provides, she says.

“It’s been a super fruitful partnership, and one that we’re really grateful to have.”

Diversified workforce

“I probably have a soft spot for Power of Trades because both my boss, our president Geoff Grist, and myself are first-generation immigrants, and it’s really about giving first-generation immigrants and refugees an opportunity to get into the trades,” Al-Obaidy says.

TBrook Restorationhere’s a practical benefit as well. Brook Restoration has found approximately half a dozen workers through Power of Trades, according to Moffatt’s estimates, but she adds that when firms send a job request to their system, its forwarded to a pool of up to 60 program alumni and workers from related training programs, a sizeable talent pipeline.

Brook Restoration also plans to play a more active role in training.

A potential program would see new workers will receive eight weeks of instruction in Brook’s training facility, with another six to eight weeks of on-site training after safety instruction, at which point the trainee may be invited to join the crew.

It’d be similar to what Brook offers in Toronto, and Al-Obaidy hopes a successful implementation in Ottawa will give options to people who haven’t considered construction before.

“It’s a very male-dominated industry and I think this is a way to get way to get a little bit of variety in both ethnicities and gender into the industry as well,” he says.

“Ottawa’s growing so much, there’s so much construction. … Hopefully it’ll spark more interest for people to get their foot in the door.”

Ottawa first

The other problem Brook Restoration faced as it entered Ottawa was the mark of an outsider.

“We’ve definitely had a bit of a struggle getting into the Ottawa market. It’s a bit of a clique,” Al-Obaidy says, adding that the firm’s approach of bringing in Toronto workers to do jobs in the city didn’t make it any friends.

“A Toronto company moving in to Ottawa and trying to take over jobs is not what we’re trying to do,” he says.

Since that time, Al-Obaidy says Brook Restoration has changed its approach. It’s now doing Ottawa jobs with Ottawa workers, right down to the subcontractors it employs.

“Now it’s been completely Ottawa-run.”

The firm purchased its building and moved in January of this year. With plans to grow both the Ottawa talent pool and its local business, Brook Restoration may well have earned its capital credentials.