Building Up, a Toronto-based social enterprise modelled on an idea developed by Winnipeg’s Build Inc, provides training in the building trades for people with barriers to employment. We met with the executive director, Marc Soberano.
Your mission is to provide sustainable employment that pays people while they’re getting trained and fulfilling contracts installing things like low-flow toilets and other sustainable retrofits. How does that work?
We’re dealing with individuals who have often never had a career. In some cases, it isn’t in the culture of their communities to even consider that as an option for the most part. They’re in and out of jail, often making bad decisions in trying to make money. What we do is give them an alternative to a life that’s going to perpetuate the cycle of poverty.
They spend 16 weeks with us, all paid. Half the time they’re in the field doing water and energy retrofits, working towards a goal, learning skills, learning what it is to show up on time, work overtime, learning mechanical skills. The other half, they’re in class learning about the nutrition they’re going to need to improve their lives, and how to avoid conflict so they don’t end up back in jail. We provide pre-apprenticeship training, and refer them to apprenticeship opportunities, so they can become a journeyperson, which is a certified tradesperson, and by that time they’re working hard and breaking the cycle.
What’s your success rate?
Eighty-five per cent of our graduates are getting full-time employment, most of which are apprenticeships. We’ve been around for about two years, not long enough to have long-term stats yet, but so far, the retention rate is strong. I can only think of one or two cases in which someone’s gone back to prison or left their work; last year we put 21 people through.
Do you have a demographic?
The majority of the people we work with are young black males who have been in and out of the criminal justice system. To give you a sense of the demand in the community, we did another intake recently, and we were able to bring on 8 people, and we already have 170 people applying for those spots. There’s a huge interest, because it’s paid training – $11.40 an hour [minimum wage in Ontario], but for half of that they’re sitting in class, or getting a driver’s license, or upgrading their high school education.
What are the main challenges in the training?
Trying to get these guys, who flunked out of high school because they hated math, excited about math later in their lives – because there’s a lot of math in the trades – is a challenge. And also trying to get guys to show up on time when they don’t have a cellphone. In the trades, you need a driver’s license, but a lot of these folks never had access to a car to practise, so how are they supposed to get a job? The barriers run deep.
Where does Building Up go from here?
This program exists as a result of the businesses that support it. We get contracts – with Toronto Community Housing, for instance, as well as various co-ops and community housing organizations – and then use that opportunity to train and employ people on the job. The majority of the work has been water retrofitting, reducing water use by installing new toilets and such. Now we’re expanding, and we’re looking to come in when a tenant leaves a unit to repaint, redo the cabinets, and in so doing, create more diverse training for our clients. We plan to just continue to grow the different services we offer and become a general contractor, so we could presumably build a building from scratch…build houses for the people in the program. That would be the dream.