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Business Column

Saint John Learning Exchange building tomorrow’s workforce from ground up


·         02 Mar 2015

·         7:47am

Workforce development – it’s a topic that surfaces in nearly every economic development conversation and one which hounds private sector and post-secondary stakeholders alike.

Figuring out the formula between available jobs and the recruitment and retention of talent is as elusive as it is frustrating. Word on the street is “there are no jobs,” but meanwhile bilingual positions are going unfilled and certain IT and skilled-trade employers can’t find qualified workers. And so discussion churns on about our region’s “skills gap.”


But despite the complexity and urgency of this topic, the focus always seems to circle back to ideas (and opinions) about post-secondary programming or corporate recruitment efforts. There is surprisingly little talk in the boardroom about capacity-building at the grassroots levels in our city. What about all the people who are already here and who want to work, but who are lacking some of the basic skills needed to succeed in the workplace? Could these not be the skilled workers of tomorrow?

It is precisely in this sphere that the Saint John Learning Exchange is humbly and creatively having a positive impact.

In a nutshell, the Saint John Learning Exchange offers academic programming (for example, GED support), as well as hands-on training opportunities to develop workplace essential skills (such as punctuality and the ability to accept constructive feedback), to clients in our city’s overlooked talent pools. The learning exchange assists between 500-600 local clients each year, including single mothers, people living in our city’s five priority neighbourhoods, those living in extreme poverty, those recovering from mental health and addictions issues, and those who have come through the correctional system.

“Staff at the learning exchange meet clients where they are,” says executive director Christina Fowler. “It’s not about delivering a pre-packaged course. It’s about walking the journey with them; the walk out of poverty and into the workforce. Our clients don’t just finish a module and then fall off the map. We are ready with the next step, the next learning opportunity, to bring them all the way.”

But the learning exchange delivers much more than programming. They’re an employer, having recently grown from 11 to 18 employees. They’re a capacity-builder, making long-term investments in individuals who cannot yet compete in higher-end employment pools.

They also provide clients with direct connections into the workforce. The learning exchange partners with a number of employers in town to provide graduates of the academic and skills-based programming an opportunity to gain real work experience.

“We know the employers we work with and their needs for entry-level work,” explains Fowler. “We help place individuals across a wide variety of sectors, largely in service roles at first. Our clients are resilient and are hard workers. We can vouch for each participant.”

What’s perhaps most exciting, however, is that the learning exchange is also building real businesses, right here in town. To date, they’ve launched Stone Soup Catering and Voilà Green Cleaning, staffed entirely by clients and graduates. They will soon have a new café opening in the new YMCA building as well.

In this way, the learning exchange teaches candidates that an entrepreneurial spirit is, in itself, a workplace essential skill. They are training up a pool of work-ready, local candidates who understand that just because a cookie-cutter job may not appear in today’s newspaper or on an online database, it doesn’t necessarily mean opportunities don’t exist. And frankly, our region could really use more people with this approach.

Certainly, a handful of other community organizations are also working to capture and build upon the untapped potential of those already living in our communities, but we need to do a better job of incorporating their principles, approaches and talent pools into mainstream approaches to workforce development. From an outside perspective, it’s clear the learning exchange is authentic, innovative and nimble. These are the traits we need to build upon to crack this workforce nut.

For more information about the learning exchange, visit www.sjle.org

To find out how to become a partner employer or acquire services from one of the learning exchange’s social enterprises, contact Christina Fowler at: christina.fowler@sjle.org

Angélique Simpson
Born and raised in Saint John, she has worked locally in law and in recruitment and is committed to helping move Atlantic Canada forward.