Good help is hard to find
PTI Transformers looking far and wide for workers as demand spikes
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It’s difficult for many employers to find skilled, experienced workers, but when you’re one of only two production facilities in the whole country that does what you do, it’s even harder.
That’s the situation PTI Transformers finds itself in. The Winnipeg plant makes large power transformers, and since demand has been growing with the increasing amount of wind and solar power generation that needs to be connected to the grid, the company has been recruiting internationally to try to fill a second shift.
There are many jobs among the 220 positions at PTI that do not require specialized skills, but in addition to a large engineering department, there are many shop floor positions that do need experienced, skilled workers.
“It’s very odd that we get a new employee here that used to work in a factory that makes large transformers,” said Brett Todd, general manager of the Winnipeg plant.
Since the fall, the company has hired about 10 people from Ukraine with the added bonus that some of them have experience in transformer production.
It so happens that Zaporizhzhia, the city on the Dnieper River where a large nuclear power plant had been under attack by Russian forces, is also home to a handful of transformer factories including one of the largest in the world that used to employ 3,500 people.
PTI now has a handful of workers from Zaporizhzhia.
When the company went to a Manitoba Start job fair for Ukrainian workers in June, they were aware of the transformer industry in Ukraine, said Stephanie Jacobs-Lockhart, PTI’s human resource manager.
With the help of the province’s Work in Manitoba international job recruitment online portal, PTI interviewed Serhii Serhiienko, an engineer and a veteran of the transformer industry.
“Originally we were just speaking to him on a Teams call and I said, ‘I see you have a wife.’ I asked what she does and Serhii told me she works with him in the transformer plant and that she is also an engineer,” recalled Jacobs-Lockhart. “So I said, ‘Let’s see her resumé too.’ We ended up hiring them both.”
Serhii, 40 and Anna Serhiienko, 38, earned master’s degrees in mechanical engineering at Zaporizhzhia National Technical University and have been working in the transformer industry since 2007.
They arrived in Winnipeg in October from Kazakhstan where they had been working since 2019.
Speaking serviceable English in a comfortable board room in the 70-year-old factory that’s nestled in a quiet Fort Garry neighbourhood, the Serhiienkos said they were motivated to come to Canada because of the safety and security of the country. They were glad to come to Winnipeg, at least partly, because they knew there was a long history of Ukrainian presence here.
With desks side by side in the company’s engineering department, they said their move to Canada is a blessing, but were also nonplussed about the challenges they face, and about the much-hyped Winnipeg winter.
“This is the same work we’ve been doing our whole careers,” said Serhii.
“It is not cold,” said Anna. “It’s nice. It’s lovely.”
Anna, who speaks to her mother in Zaporizhzhia on the telephone every morning, said their 10-year-old daughter is very happy here. Among other things, she’s part of a Girl Scouts group.
“We want our parents to come but they are not young people. They want to stay in the place where they live all their lives,” said Serhii. “They are not so flexible. They are afraid to change.”
The Serhiienkos are lucky. They found jobs in their chosen fields and have been welcomed and supported by an employer who was there to greet them at the airport when they arrived.
“We had nothing when we arrived, we knew nothing,” said Anna. “They (the staff at PTI) showed us the city, gave us a lot of stuff like furniture and dishes. The help was great for us.”
They know that not all recent Ukrainian immigrants are in the same position.
“Lots of people from Ukraine and other places, they don’t have jobs or a place to live and don’t have such support like we have,” said Serhii. “They were very helpful to us.”
The Serhiienkos were joined a few weeks after they arrived by another Zaporizhzhian. They had never met before, but Oleg Potikha, 33, attended the same university when the Serhiienkos were there.
He did not work in the transformer industry, but knows transformers having been employed by an electrical utility at a substation. He arrived in Canada from Germany with his wife, who is disabled (which is why he was able to leave the country), and two young children.
Yevhenii Herasymenko, 30, works as an oil processor at PTI — transformers are filled with oil. He also arrived in the fall from Chernihiv, north of Kyiv, with his extended family including three children. (He was able to leave Ukraine because he has more than two children.)
“This is a good place for me. A good place to work,” he said. “Big thanks to the company.”
The success of the workers at PTI is not a surprise to Judith Hayes, the executive director of Manitoba Start, the agency that helps immigrants find work.
“We have been helping and supporting Ukrainians find work here,” she said. “They’re skilled and hard working. I think it has been very successful for them and for the workforce in Manitoba. This group is something different and new for Canada but the work we do is not any different.”
Since the beginning of the year, Manitoba Start has worked with 430 Ukrainian immigrants and almost half of them have master’s degrees.
Todd said that they have been a significant addition to PTI workforce, but is concerned about the situation in their homeland.
“You feel bad in a way, sort of like ambulance chasing, but on the flip side, they are happy to be here. It is a win-win,” he said.
George Partyka Jr., the Regina-based owner of PTI (the company has a plant in Regina that makes small transformers) said the international recruitment drive is working for the company.
“Obviously it is unfortunate given the situation that the country and their people are in, but this has provided some opportunities for some families to get over to Canada and start a new life here,” he said.
And as an owner of a critical industry in Canada with few peers and with global trade not as reliable as it once was, it’s important to be able to maintain such an industry in Canada, he said.
“You want to have the expertise in manufacturing and have it done as local as possible,” he said. “It’s tough to find skilled positions, whether it’s a welder, an engineer, even someone with experience winding or assembling transformers. There is only a handful of us across Canada. It is very important to have it here.”
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.