Providing a pathway for youth to enter well-paying careers is an effective long-term solution to preventing homelessness in Canada. In this webinar, a team of solutionary leaders discuss their real-world experiencing operating Employment Social Enterprises in Canada.

Continuing the Conversation: Webinar Q&A

Although there was a robust Q&A session during the webinar (which you can watch above), there were many great questions that the panellists weren’t able to get to live. See panelist Emmy Kelly’s (Chief Operating Officer, Blue Door Shelters) answers below!

The Value of Social Employment Enterprise for Preventing Youth Homelessness

Q: Do you see [employment social enterprise] as a third option for kids leaving school, aside from university or college, that might prevent them from experiencing homelessness?

A: The trades are a great career option for youth. Research shows an extreme shortage of people entering skilled trades, with less than 10% choosing apprenticeship options in Canadian high schools compared to a country like Germany where they have a strong mix in vocational training and thereby see, more of a 60-65% uptake.

In Canada, 72% of the contracting industry were concerned with labour shortages, and we will see a shortfall of over 68,000 tradespeople over the next ten years. So yes, the trades are a good, well-paying and viable career path, which can also prevent homelessness by means of the salary.

Creating Safe Spaces for Racialized and BIPOC Youth 

Q: How do you and your leadership team make sure BIPOC feel comfortable and heard?

A: Leadership at Blue Door recognize that while we have several measures in place, both policy and program wise (for ex. creating safe spaces, pushing for community benefit agreements, diversity in hiring practice, program operation etc.), this is not enough. As a way of identifying opportunities to build on success/best practices and strengthen areas for development, we engaged external consultants to conduct an Anti-Racism and Anti-Oppression (ARAO) organizational assessment. The assessment provided us with objective feedback (which included stakeholder involvement) and a well-informed snapshot of the organization’s current state. We can use this information to strengthen alignment and inform planning and priority setting for changes and improvements to Blue Door moving forward. The work and recommendations will help us move toward a desired state in the key areas of impact: Governance; Organizational/Foundational Statements and Documents; Program Policies and Procedures; Program Practices; Personnel Policies, Procedures and Practices; Skills and Training; Organizational Composition and Climate; and Community Consultation and Communication.

Q: How do you as a leader of the social enterprises include the cultural needs of Indigenous Peoples?

A: Our work is only beginning. One of the honours we have recently received is the blessing of partnership with Na-Me-Res, an organization led by Steve Teekens, helping Aboriginal men lead healthy, self-determined lives.

COVID-19 has caused some delay in the work, but their team is settling in at our offices and meeting with community partners to establish what the work will look like in this region.

Training At Blue Door’s Employment Social Enterprise 

Q: Do you do training and preparation with employers (for ex. working with a diverse workforce, being open, inclusive and responsive), or do you think there is a lot of work to be done with this?

A: Our team does have ongoing conversations and partnerships with employers regarding the intent and nature of the work. These conversations bring a deeper understanding to the populations we are serving and are what the partnerships are based on (for ex—providing basic life skills training to individuals that can then transition to further training and work in their next employment opportunity. Depending on the employer, the needs can vary, and yes, there is continued opportunity.

However, we also recognize our program as carrying the primary responsibility for the wraparound supports or case management that may be needed. Employers are not necessarily equipped to deal with some of the specific situations our participants face, and so our role is to prepare participants for gainful employment.

It may be helpful to note that if you are considering supporting high acuity clients, that the model of a parallel social enterprise (this means clients would stay and work in your business) might be more appropriate, as those with higher needs may never transition successfully to employment that does not provide supports for them. The model Construct offers linking, which means that we provide training and skills development and then transition participants into long-term career opportunities in the construction trades.

Q: Do you run life skills groups to teach workplace skills (for ex. behaviour on jobs, determine barriers, budgeting, getting ready for a job) prior to youth starting work?

A: Absolutely! At Construct, our model recognizes that you’ll need to know valuable life skills when you transition out, have grown your abilities, and be supported by community groups. So we work with external providers to get participants certified with the basics of health and safety, working from heights, WHIMIS, etc. Then, our in-house trainers provide skills training, resume creation, behaviour intervention, etc., to equip students with the right skills needed for work. Also by involving participants in the jobs of the social enterprise, it provides opportunity for hands-on learning and the reality of work (where they are mentored) to get to a point where they are ready for more. See our model below:

Blue Door Shelter - Construct program model

Blue Door Shelter – Construct program model

Q: What role does advocacy with youth play in Employment Social Enterprise organizations? Do you have  experience working to develop critical consciousness with youth to identify and address common experiences related to systemic barriers linked with inequity and oppression?

A: There is more to be done! One of our recent initiatives was to begin INNclusion, a transitional home that helps at-risk youth avoid homelessness. For a virtual tour, you can visit here; Blue Door’s New INNclusion Program: Supportive Housing for 2SLGBTQ+ Youth in York Region – YouTube. INNclusion is the first of its kind in York Region, a transitional program which opened mid-March. It can provide stable housing for four youth aged 16 to 26 who identify as 2SLGBTQ+ and are at risk of, or experiencing, homelessness.

Studies suggest Canadian LGBTQ+ youth make up between 25 and 40 percent of all homeless youth and face financial hardship, employment barriers, family breakdown, mental illness — and importantly, safety concerns. In this initiative, we have staff support as we provide a transitional space for youth looking for assistance building skills to live independently in the community.

Enrolment At Blue Door’s Employment Social Enterprise

Q: Is there a balance of genders coming to construction Social Employment Enterprises? Construction traditionally has been male-oriented. Is there as much intake with young women in these training programs?

A: The construction trades have long been one of the industries with the lowest percentage of women, so we do recognize this imbalance in the application process and thereby participants in the program.

This presents challenges and opportunity for Construct. While we have had some women join and transition into careers, as we continue to message and encourage women to join, we are seeing a mix of reactions. We see some women who want to participate, but others who are not interested in the trades and the physicality of the job. We also are working towards flexibility for parents. Construct works to address cultural issues as a priority; however, the conversation needs to continue when participants transition out. There are still changes required to outdated behaviours in the larger industry, which traditionally lend themselves to a culture where women remain under-represented. We do believe that addressing these cultural issues should be every employers’ priority.

Q: Is enrolment into Blue Door’s Construct program open to service providers in York Region only?

A: Our doors are open for those who can benefit, and to that end, you can follow the registration windows (see website and social media below) and work with our team to send over participants. However, depending on where you are, I would be concerned with distance as we do not want to create what would feel like an additional barrier to a career if someone had to travel a very long distance to partake in the training and opportunities.

How Government and Policy Makers Can Support the Growth of Employment Social Enterprises

Q: Social enterprises offer a great opportunity to generate revenue for non-profits to reinvest in their mission – how do you think the current policy environment or the government can better support the growth of social enterprises?

A: One of the things I discovered on my learning journey is that Canada is quite behind several other countries in using social enterprise as a solution to labour market reattachment. However, there is growing interest in the role of non-profits and social enterprise to drive innovative responses to the challenges, and Canada is taking steps towards encouraging social innovation solutions.

So, I would say it depends on who’s asking; If you are from a non-profit or social enterprise, I think we have to be patient and tenacious. These things take time. However, we need to continue to push for community benefit agreements, build relationships with municipalities that allow the social enterprise to be their contractor of choice, keep raising the topic, raise awareness, bring forward the discussions and find alignment.

In the meantime, there are several funding streams available that social enterprises can innovate around to fund the social aspects of their work — especially right now, there is a lot of support available.

If the person asking this question is in government, I would invite a deeper conversation ( ) for us to collaborate on moving the needle. Beginning with the end in mind, there are many small and big steps to help us achieve our shared goals.

Moving Forward

Q: Any recommendations on how to improve social enterprise procurement? To raise awareness about social enterprise and encourage, for instance, construction projects to use social enterprise contractors instead of private for-profit ones?

A: Social enterprises thrive off partnerships to fulfil their social mission. These partnerships should represent a cross-section of private business, government, and the social sector. We need to be consistent and clear in messaging that speaks to the “why” of using the social enterprise. We need to continue to push for community benefit agreements and for procurement to not only be based on price but on the community benefit as the priority.

Some important actions that come to mind are:

  • Use your organization’s brand recognition and communication channels to leverage the social enterprise
  • Utilize your organization’s existing network of donors, funders, community to secure work
  • Open new conversations and develop “anchor customers” that will utilize your services over the long term to keep the social enterprise operational
  • Build relationships through co-creation of value and in partnership with the government
  • Talk with local Business Improvement Associations (BIAs) to establish and grow the customer base
  • Stay current with local demand and then pursue the markets/ opportunities that have interest to pay for your social enterprise’s services
  • If you’re going into construction, then look towards and develop partnerships with businesses that have high labour needs

Q: How would you suggest agencies help fill the gap in employment opportunities if they do not have the ability to start a social enterprise at this time?

A: Keep doing the best you can! But here are some ideas:

  • Establish partnerships where you can connect people to community and local job opportunities
  • Establish and leverage relationships with employment-based support agencies to connect youth to local opportunities
  • Support and promote local social enterprise initiatives with youth referrals
  • Offer employment readiness and skills training
  • Where possible, encourage the procurement of services from local social enterprises

Q: In what ways have researchers and academic institutions been useful to this work? And how can they be helpful moving forward? 

A: The challenges of the social sector continue to grow, not just locally but globally. All sectors will need to adopt a stronger view of this, and there is already some uptake through Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG), etc. I believe that we need to continue to move past charity in its previous context and continue to move towards well thought through, well-researched, and intentionally planned solutions, along with clear data collection and measurement, if we are to move the needle and create sustainable change.

The benefit of academic institutions/ researchers in this thought is that they can focus their skills, smarts, and passions on researching and informing knowledgeable and thoughtful recommendations (these should also be linked back to the Global Sustainable Development Goals). These recommendations will make for a meaningful impact first on a microscale and then hopefully on a macroscale.

The challenge for many non-profits is that they are already stretched thin. Staff are trying to do double the work with half the resources and yet continue to be looked to for solutions for solving day to day emergencies. If we approach our work as we do in business and support cross-sector relationships, we can think outside of this box and continue to move forward as a sector.

Q: Have you considered “franchising” your Employment Social Enterprise program to other communities? Thinking specifically about the budget announcement regarding money for repurposing vacant government buildings for affordable housing…

A: At Blue Door, we haven’t yet planned for “franchising” by typical definition, but we are aware of the demand, recognize the need and continue to forge partnerships that bring our work further. Construct launched in York Region and is now working to establish operations in Durham. Building Up (Toronto) is doing some amazing work with Community Builders (Barrie) to serve the Sudbury area — so the solutionaries are on the move!

There are also many similar social enterprises popping up across Canada, so we continue to look for ways to coordinate efforts and strengthen our approaches. We are looking to tackle this at Blue Door by working with the Home Depot Canada Foundation to launch TradeWorx (coming soon). This initiative will start with ten social enterprises and bring together like minds — and we hope to continue expanding this work.