District programs need to address basic work skills: Coleman
MUSKOKA - Employers working with the District of Muskoka are stepping back to the basics when it comes to those on Ontario Works.
Diane Kretchsmar began working with Ontario Works recipients on her farm outside of Gravenhurst in a pilot project with the district this spring. She began by teaching participants to plant seedlings.
“I’m a little taken aback by how far we have to go back in the training sense,” Kretchsmar said, “but once we understand that we can work around it.”
Among other initiatives and training programs, the district is working with Savour Muskoka to teach people how to work with the land and with food in an effort to revive farming in Muskoka.
Kretchsmar said of the five people that began working at her farm, she saw potential in three: one of them received a job, another left to participate in the bootcamp program offered by the district, and one of them is still with her. She said the other two moved on to other farms and she’s lost touch with them.
Finding competent workers is not unique to Ontario Works employers.
Kretchsmar said it’s a problem she runs into every year when she hires staff to work her market garden, the difference is she can screen the applicants.
Muskoka Lakes councillor Ruth Nishikawa, who owns a construction business, said she faced a similar situation.
“Boy, oh boy, we really had to teach the very, very basic things, very basic things, to people just in entry level jobs,” she said, “even how you mow a lawn.”
She mentioned basic skills like dressing for the job, layering clothing so they can be added or removed throughout the day, and understanding how much the weather can change from 8 a.m. to noon.
Nishikawa said she’s spoken to developers and there will be jobs coming in Muskoka, but things like transportation and skill development create a problem.
“We know we’ve got jobs coming,” she said. “Things should be looking up. It’s how do you get these guys to work.”
The district provides programs for those on Ontario Works to learn basic life skills as well as gain real work experience such as at Kretchsmar’s farm, but area councillors such as Huntsville councillor Fran Coleman, said there needs to be more.
“Certainly it seems then that our skills development probably needs to even look at more basic (training),” Coleman said.
Gravenhurst resident Brian Shanks is one of the program’s success stories.
Working as a mason and carpenter before he was laid off, Shanks had enthusiasm and a willingness to learn but no farm experience when he began working part time at Kretchsmar’s farm.
Soon after he began working, Kretchsmar’s neighbour noticed he had ‘an uncanny skill with horses,’ so Kretchsmar found someone to teach him how to use the horses to skid logs.
“It was just a constant learning experience,” Shanks said. “There was so much to learn out there and I was learning something new every day. Learning to work with the animals, I think was my favourite thing to do.”
Shanks, his partner and two children have been on Ontario Works for about a year. He is hoping to go to college to become an environmental technologist, while his partner is finishing her GED so she can apprentice for hair styling.
“If I had the money and when I’m older I’d definitely like to buy a property and have my own farm because it’s a good way to go,” he said. “You can’t survive that well in a farm right now.”
Others, such as Ron Johnson, were not as successful at the farm. Johnson, a painter by trade, said he ended up on Ontario Works and working at Kretchsmar’s farm after the woman he loved ran off with a cab driver. He started work in the spring and said he was let go in May.
Rick Williams, commissioner of community services for the District of Muskoka, said he has no doubt the programs are making people more employable, but that doesn’t mean they are finding jobs. He noted the numerous farms in Muskoka that aren’t being farmed and said they want to go back to the history of those farms and tie it to food production and serving.
He said it will be a good investment but a slow process to bring the farm movement back.
“When Walmart comes to town, you throw a workshop on retail clerk and 38 people get jobs the next day. This is not like that,” he said.
Kelli Ebbs from Savour Muskoka said they are looking to start a farm garden plot in the District of Muskoka to grow animals and food. Currently they are investigating a farm in Raymond and hope for funding from the district.
“There’s a massive gap in employers trying to find skilled people to work in their restaurants and farmers and a big, huge group of people who need jobs, so we’re working on it to close that gap,” Ebbs said.
Kretchmar plans to continue working with Ontario Works recipients if the district continues the pilot project.
“It just seemed like a good fit right from the start because we need to produce more food locally … farmers are getting old and we just need new blood. I think for people that need work, it’s an obvious place to start looking for work.”