Stories and news from FortisBC

REnEW program helps graduates build a better future

November 4, 2020

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The new garden shed at Westbank First Nation is no ordinary home for wheelbarrows and food storage. It was a demonstration project built with energy efficiency in mind. It has a high-efficiency wall assembly, insulation, two operable windows and a solar light to reduce, or eliminate, the need for electricity.

This energy-efficient shed was a building project for the students in FortisBC’s Residential Energy Efficiency Works (REnEW) program. It was made possible by our program partner the Okanagan Training Development Council (OTDC) and our host, Westbank First Nation, who provided us with valuable facilities and other resources so we could deliver this year’s program.

Now in its tenth year, FortisBC launched REnEW in cooperation with local community groups to help lift barriers to employment for individuals looking for a better future within the growing energy-efficiency construction industry.

The program’s goal is to help participants gain the self-confidence and skills they need to seek and achieve new goals and opportunities. To date, more than 100 participants from a variety of BC communities have completed the training.

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Community partnerships make the program possible

FortisBC partnered with the OTDC to deliver the REnEW program. OTDC’s mandate to provide value-based training to aboriginal individuals aligns well with REnEW’s goals.

OTDC provided students with everything they needed to help ensure their success, including assistance from program coordinator Kevin Willier. Kevin describes the way they supported students as very “hands-on.” “We transported them to the site, made sure they had meals and anything else they needed throughout the day—both in the classroom and out on the project site,” he says. As the training progressed, Kevin was increasingly impressed with the student’s dedication. “Despite being out of their comfort zone, especially during the pandemic, they came out every day, eager to learn,” says Kevin. “The graduation rate was 100 percent. That says a lot for their commitment.”

The program was also made possible with the support of trade sponsors who provided in-class and on-site skills training and in-kind donations. When Paul Courtoreille of WIBCO Construction learned that Westbank First Nation was thinking about getting involved with FortisBC and the REnEW program, he felt compelled to help. He’d seen first-hand the difference the program can make while working for another company that had provided work experience placements for REnEW students.

“As the general manager of a company that’s owned by Westbank First Nation, I saw an opportunity to give back to the community,” says Paul. “I’ve observed both the benefits of the program and also the challenges of making it work. I knew I could use my previous experience to support students.”

Paul and WIBCO signed on to be the construction partner to mentor participants and lead the onsite construction project. Paul helped with planning for the session, including finding a suitable building project for the students to work on and enlisting the help of other trades professionals who offered cost savings on building supplies, and volunteered their time to mentor students.

Construction site “staged” for group project

Typically, the REnEW program includes two weeks of classroom instruction, followed by a two-week group building project in the community. This year, an additional week was added so the students could earn their small machinery operator’s licence.

Kevin explains that another change that occurred this year was due to COVID-19 restrictions and concern for everyone’s safety. “The program team decided to stage a construction site for the group project,” says Kevin. “The students built an energy-efficient garden shed that would ultimately be donated to the Westbank First Nation. It will be on display for participants to look at as a legacy every time they pass the community buildings.”

The garden shed project exposed students to many of the scopes of work necessary to complete a residential building project, says Paul—including foundation, framing, insulation, door and window installation and roofing—and in some ways offered them even more of a learning opportunity than in past years. “We had our trade participants come to the site to do the installation and work with the students,” he explains. “It created a focused learning environment as they learned how and why something was done.”

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Participants gain skills and confidence

Building the garden shed was program participant Selena Joe’s favourite part of the training.

“I entered the program to get some experience under my belt. I had never worked on a job site before,” says Selena. “I liked the team work when we built the garden shed-everybody being together and helping each other.” Selena is also excited that she earned eight safety certificates during the training.

“It’s given me a sense of accomplishment. I’m feeling a lot more confident now about going to a job site.”  - Selena Joe, REnEW program participant

The eight critical industry-respected safety certificates the students earned include first-aid, fall protection and construction safety training systems. Paul thinks the advantage of having this additional training is huge. “As an employer, if I’m trying to decide between two applicants and I see one with first-aid training and one without, I’m likely to choose the one who has the certificate,” he admits. “The skills training and certificates they’ve earned definitely give them an edge over other entry level applicants.”

And that’s why participant Ricky August wanted to do the program. Ricky already had some experience working in construction and wanted to add to his skill set. “I was interested in the program because I wanted to get my level-one first aid and get some experience operating small construction equipment,” says Ricky. “Now that I’ve earned my small equipment operator’s licence, I’m looking forward to one day working as an equipment operator.”

Selena is looking forward to her next steps too. “I want to go back to school to further my education so I can start working and get some experience.” She’ll have help with that through funding that’s available through OTDC. FortisBC has also partnered with OTDC to provide post-secondary scholarships for some graduates of the REnEW program.

OTDC manager, Karen Abramsen says she has appreciated having the opportunity to partner with FortisBC on the REnEW program. “Our focus is to help everyone obtain employment or further their education. The ultimate goal is economic sustainability – getting a decent job to support your family,” she says. “The skills the students learn through REnEW, and having access to funding for further training, helps them carve a path for a better future.”

Of the 10 REnEW graduates, four have applied for college, one is returning to a previous job and Kevin and the OTDC will continue to provide strong support for the remaining five as they look for employment.

“The REnEW program is only as successful as the partnerships behind it,” says Ned Georgy, manager for FortisBC’s conservation & energy management programs. “It was clear our partners—OTDC, Westbank First Nation and WIBCO—were working together to create the best possible experience for our participants. The result was phenomenal – an extremely successful REnEW session.”

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