Cutting BUILD’s funding is the wrong call
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The Progressive Conservative government has made another bad call: this time, cutting the funding to a successful training program at BUILD (disclosure: I worked at BUILD in 2011 to 2013; and prior to that, the program was one site of my PhD research.)
According to the Free Press, one reason cited for the cut was the government had a problem with the fact the program paid trainees.
A few fundamental misconceptions need to be confronted here, as there are a technical reason and many social-cultural reasons why getting paid is of utmost importance to the success of BUILD’s trainees. The technical reason is simple, and comes down to labour law: trainees are working, mostly performing light construction retrofitting social-housing units. It would be against the law for them to be volunteers.
And yet, the on-the-job experience is what participants need most and, importantly, feel they can do — many come into the program with limited success in formal education settings.
The social-cultural reasons, however, are equally important. First, everyone in the program is living in what can only be described as extreme poverty. Participants need to be paid to ensure they can keep whatever meagre housing they might have. Without pay, no trainee would be able to be in the program.
And let’s be honest — as it is, the pay is meagre (being that it is minimum wage), but it is certainly better than zero.
Second, BUILD’s training program, although it does involve ample classroom time, should not be confused with a trades-based program that might be found at Manitoba Institute for Training and Trades or Red River College (though both are great exit plans for BUILD trainees leaving the program).
Third, a key social-cultural component of the program is that it is experienced by the trainee as a job — it is often a participant’s first “real” job. As such, it needs to mirror the realities of work life — from being on time to taking direction from site supervisors to getting paid.
What I observed, both as a researcher and later as a manager, was that these social-cultural components of the program were key to changing both the attitude and the comportment of the trainees.
Many trainees who came in identified with being “handy” or able to do physical labour, but expressed they felt out of place on a job site, and they often came in slouched over, as if unsure or embarrassed to drop off a resumé. By the end, however, the same participants knew they could walk with confidence. (And guess what’s a great way to get a job? Showing some confidence!)
As a social scientist would say, the way BUILD works is that it provides trainees with the social capital they had been missing. “Hands-on training” in this sense is more than just the literal “hands on tools,” but extends to every experience within the program. In other words, it’s a job — so treat it like one.
If Premier Heather Stefanson and company have an issue with trainees being paid, it’s just another example of how out to lunch they are on the social and economic realities poor and largely Indigenous men and women have been dealt as they age out of care and/or are released from prison.
That group, by and large, is who BUILD trainees are and have been. These Indigenous men and women are so much more deserving than our premier can imagine.
Jonah Pearce has supported social enterprise and non-profit development for nearly a decade, most recently at Local Investment Toward Employment, the 2022 Spirit of Winnipeg winner for social enterprises and non-profits presented by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce. He is now principal at Sixteenth Letter Collaborative, a consultancy dedicated to third-sector excellence.