WESTPHAL, NS – Before Howard Benjamin heard about the East Preston Empowerment Academy outside of Halifax, gaps in his math and reading skills were preventing him from wanting to find work as an electrician.
But since graduating as a construction electrician this year, Benjamin, 51, has been able to work more broadly in Nova Scotia’s electrical industry.
His Red Seal certification with the country’s National Business Standards Program became possible after enrolling in the East Preston Empowerment Academy, or EPEA, an educational institution that offers free programs to Nova Scotians.
“(EPEA) gave me a place to study and find volunteers to help me with things that I personally needed,” Benjamin said in a recent interview. “From there I’m able to legitimately open my own business (and) legitimately compete with all the other entrepreneurs out there.”
The academy is located in Preston Township, which has long been a hub of Nova Scotia’s black community. A recent study by Deloitte Canada found that the academy has been an engine of economic and social growth in the region, helping to bridge the disparities that the local black community faces.
Born out of a 2014 initiative by East Preston United Baptist Church, the academy initially offered an adult learning program, but has since expanded to include an equivalency diploma preparation course high school education as well as a trades apprenticeship program for participants seeking Red Seal certification.
African Nova Scotians tend to be under-represented in the trades, according to the Deloitte study. They represent 2.4% of the provincial population, according to 2016 census data, but represented only 0.12% of apprenticeships in the province in 2015-2016.
Deloitte concluded that the EPEA reduced the problem by contributing more than $ 1 million to the provincial gross domestic product between 2016 and 2020. The academy saw 14 of its students find sustainable full-time jobs and more than 70 percent of participants surveyed indicated that they saw their hourly wage rate increase after completing a program.
Easton Dunkley, instructor at EPEA, said the institution offers a “regeneration process” that allows more people in the community to achieve certification, and in turn, young tradespeople undergo an apprenticeship.
Dunkley said there was a gap between the expertise of tradespeople in the community and the salaries they earn.
“We have people, mostly men, who work in the trades, and they’re experts at what they do, but they’re paid very little to do it,” Dunkley said. “We recognized that maybe we should get these guys qualified so they can make more money, start their own businesses and stuff like that.”
With certification, an electrician can go from $ 30 or $ 40 an hour to $ 80 or $ 90, Dunkley added.
“It’s a better quality of life at the end of it, which is the goal,” he said.
That’s why academy president Senator Wanda Bernard calls EPEA a “lifeline” for African Nova Scotians and other marginalized people looking to return to school.
“The barriers that people of African descent in Nova Scotia face in education prevent many from pursuing post-secondary education,” she said in a recent interview.
She said the program’s’ Afro-centric approach ‘to education helps provide participants with’ much greater opportunities in their profession, greater opportunities for employment or employability, but also as landlords. company ”.
For Benjamin, his status as a Red Seal electrician now means that he can “be an ambassador” of the academy.
He has since hired an apprentice, Vincent Kennedy, who is enrolled in the academy to help him obtain his own certification as a construction electrician. Since the program started four weeks ago, Kennedy has said he has received communication and math help as he prepares for the exam needed to achieve certification.
“They are very encouraging and patient, and I find that a great help,” Kennedy said.
Benjamin said the ability to contribute to the community at large has been a key benefit of his involvement with the academy.
“We continue to do what we need to do to uplift people here who have been fighting longer than others in other areas and that starts with investing in the community,” Benjamin said.
And in addition to contributing to the greater Preston Township area, Benjamin said he has since found personal satisfaction in being able to see the efforts of his work whenever he walks past an old project.
“There is nothing more proud than to say: ‘Yes, I made this house’. And when my daughter walks past her, she can say, “Yeah, daddy made this house. And when she has kids, whether I’m here or not, she can say ‘Daddy wired this house, these houses,’ “he said.” It’s that sense of pride and community. “
© 2021 The Canadian Press