Personally invested in the well-being of the workforce
By Rajitha Sivakumaran
Since May, the residents of Fort McMurray have endured the distressing consequences of a ravaging fire, which has forced them to partake in the largest wildfire evacuation in the history of Alberta. For one businesswoman, the experience has been particularly tormenting.
“Fort McMurray has always been like a second home to me,” said Patricia Forrest, CEO of Align Personnel, a skilled labour and professional staffing agency. Before founding her own company, Forrest worked in residential and oil and gas construction in Fort McMurray. “I found it to be a very beautiful place. With the time that I spent there in construction and out of town on remote sites, I guess I just developed a strong love for the city,” she added.
Providing staffing solutions to the oil and gas sector, Align Personnel is an Aboriginal-owned business based in Calgary, but the company has been growing rapidly since its inception in 2014 and now has a second office in Fort McMurray. “When I was looking at setting up my second office, there were a few different cities I had in mind, but Fort McMurray was at the top of the list,” Forrest said.
In the months leading up to the founding of her company, Forrest experienced a tragic loss with the passing of her mother. The experience on and off site became one of the fundamental decrees of Align Personnel.
“I think by taking that personal investment of time into each worker and candidate, it really shows that we are a company that cares about our workforce,” Forrest said.
The company demonstrated this investment very well during the Fort McMurray situation when the wildfire displaced seven workers from Align Personnel. “We were working hard to advocate for them and to accommodate them and help them find resources,” Forrest said. Initiatives included facilitating travel, such as enabling workers to fly to and from work sites. For those who took the bus daily to sites, on-site housing allowed for a smoother operation. A few workers lost everything to the fire and have taken time off. “We assured them that they do have their jobs waiting for them when they come back,” Forrest said.
When it comes to employment, Align Personnel has taken care not only of its own people, but of other locals as well. The company is presently staffing a project north of town and although the site has a full workforce, Forrest has reached out to evacuees searching for work. “I decided that I would reach out to the displaced locals of Fort McMurray and offer them the opportunity to go work on this project for us just so that they could get back to work and get back to normalcy and be employed,” Forrest said.
Residents haven’t been the only ones to suffer the wrath of nature; businesses have stomached the difficulties and the inopportuneness of relocation as well. As a business owner herself, Forrest understands the delicate balance between commercial weal and woe, particularly in the midst of a calamity. Ten days after the fire broke out, Forrest offered temporary office space within her own Calgary-based office, free of charge, to any interested Fort McMurray business that had been displaced.
As of early June, there were still 13 wildfires in Alberta, with the one in Fort McMurray remaining uncontained. Even though voluntary re-entry commenced in June, there is much to be done in terms of restoration. “I have a really strong workforce that is ready to be deployed,” Forrest said.
Matching people to careers
As an indigenous businesswoman, Forrest’s mandate was to specialize in the capacity-building and training of people from First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities. After meeting her current business partner, Shannon Warren of Matrix Labour Leasing, she was able to build a company based on this vision.
When it comes to matching people to careers, all it takes is for a jobseeker interested in a particular trade to approach Align Personnel. Technology plays a large role in the recruitment process. Align Connect, for example, is a social recruiting and hiring website that Shannon Warren and a few other partner companies were in the process of developing when Forrest founded Align Personnel. Jobseekers can use the site to create profiles and resumes, and apply for positions. “The interesting and best part about Connect is that we have a feature on it called Volunteer Connect,” Forrest said. This feature, as indicated by its name, lists volunteer opportunities.
For those who are just entering a trade, the company acts as a liaison between the individual and other companies to organize internships that will equip the jobseeker with firsthand knowledge in the field. Presently under development is the Mentoring Circles section of the website; this will allow protégés to connect with experienced workers to help troubleshoot issues or ask questions about a particular trade. “This can pass on information from the experienced generation to the new generation,” Forrest said.
A growth strategy for tough times
Even though recent times have been especially taxing due to the wildfire, Align Personnel began in rather violent seas. For starters, being a new business is usually riddled with challenges. “That initial getting in the door and getting in front of people was a struggle, but finding the right people in the industry was definitely the way that I overcame it,” Forrest said.
Secondly, the company emerged at a time that was already posing difficulties for Alberta’s oil and gas sector. Forrest admits that 2015 was a challenge; starting out in a rough market made for a slow start, but it also allowed for a very strong start. “It definitely set the roadwork for the future because starting in a tough economy definitely gave me a thick skin to weather more tough economies when they do come,” Forrest said.
Although Align Personnel caters predominantly to the oil and gas sector, it is in the midst of diversifying into other industries. With the price of oil resembling a roller-coaster ride, the company has adapted by taking on more commercial work.
“My growth strategy right now is that we always put our workers first. We expect career growth. We don’t encourage it, we expect it. We work our hardest to help guide people in the right direction. With the confidence that is instilled in our workers, they are able to go out, work hard and do a good job. That’s success for them and my company,” Forrest said. Currently, her workforce is 80 percent indigenous, due to building solid relationships within various First Nations communities.
Additionally, the company has formed partnerships with educational institutions to give new graduates valuable work experience through trade apprenticeships. “My next step is to solidify more of those relationships and work closely with my clients in those facilities to help develop training programs that are needed in the industry because I can see where there are shortages of workers,” Forrest said, adding that this growth strategy will allow for expansion into Saskatchewan and British Columbia.