The helping hand of capitalism

The air is thick with the smell of sawdust and the roar power saws. Workers are busy cutting boards and assembling wooden boxes used to hold core samples.

The air is thick with the smell of sawdust and the roar power saws.

Workers are busy cutting boards and assembling wooden boxes used to hold core samples.

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything unique about Career Industries’ shop in the Porter Creek industrial area.

But look closer and you’ll find this is more than a run-of-the-mill wood shop busy servicing the mining industry.

All employees either have a disability, or some other kind barrier to employment.

Career Industries’ goal is to make money, but it also has a mandate to help those it employs.

“I’m just happy that they’re given me a chance when no one else would,” said Kelsey, who helps manage the floor. “I really enjoy the people here.”

With a past that includes trouble with drugs and the law, Kelsey had a hard time finding a job.

He’s been working in the shop for a year and a half, but his real goal is to work as a heavy equipment operator.

The closest he comes to that in the wood shop is driving the forklift.

Kelsey, like many of the employees in the shop, is a client of Challenge Vocational Alternatives, a non-profit that helps people with a range of disabilities build marketable skills and find employment.

Career Industries, on the other hand, is a for-profit company. But it’s a wholly owned subsidiary of Challenge.

“The lawyers had quite a hay day trying to figure out how a for-profit company can be run by a non-profit organization,” said Rick Mombourquette, the manager of Career Industries. “We did it because we wanted a realistic model in which to employ and train the people that use Challenge.”

Mombourquette has been with Career Industries since its inception in 1988.

With two wood shops, it makes picnic tables, bed frames and other things for retail and wholesale specialty orders for the mining industry and government.

It’s been a success for both the employees and the company.

“We don’t require any government funding, or take any funds from Challenge,” said Mombourquette. “In fact, in a good year we are able to donate money back into Challenge for their programming.”

While they might not take any money from Challenge, Career Industries does benefit from the vocational programming and support the organization offers, said Mombourquette.

The training and support continues for the employees once they’re hired by Career Industries.

“We understand they need more supports than most, and we try to accommodate them as much as we can,” he said.

While the goal is not necessarily to see them move on to other companies, they do offer career counseling and other services to help employees find a job they love.

“It’s entirely employee driven,” said Mombourquette. “Clearly if their heart is set on something else we support them in that.”

Challenge has had years of success with Career Industries, and it has branched out into other businesses as well.

The non-profit also manages the Bridges Cafe in Shipyards Park.

While they aren’t yet at the same level of profitability as the wood shops, the goal is to make them self sustaining as well, said Rick Goodfellow, the executive director of Challenge.

The cafes were started by the department of Health and Social Services in 2009.

It was a program to give clients of mental health services practical employment skills and a chance to interact with the public.

Initially it was only open one day a week.

As it became more popular, the department turned to Challenge for help.

The first thing its officials told the government was to keep the venture open through the week and over the weekend.

“The weekend is where the wheels really fall off for a lot of these people,” said Goodfellow.

When Challenge took over the management of the restaurant, Goodfellow envisioned them offering simple lunch fare, like hamburgers and hot dogs.

But the chef they hired had his own ideas.

The menu quickly became much more sophisticated.

Goodfellow wasn’t sure it would work at first, but after watching the chef prepare scallops with ease he realized he needed an opportunity to be creative, to keep interested.

It’s the same thing with Challenge’s clients.

Just giving people a job isn’t enough, the work itself has to be meaningful, said Goodfellow.

“We are really defined by what we do,” he said. “It really affects your psyche and these guys are no different.”

While the project’s social inclusion is vital, giving people a chance to build their skill set and make a decent wage also does wonders for their mental health, said Goodfellow.

“The things we’ve seen come out of people when they get that little bit of self confidence are really amazing,” he said.

The cafes aren’t able to stand on their own yet.

They still depend on a contribution agreement with the government to keep the doors open.

It’s going to take some time, but Goodfellow is hopeful that the cafe will soon turn a profit.

“We’re basically looking at a two-year window and by that time we should be able to build enough business and build a solid enough base that it can look after itself,” he said.

Contact Josh Kerr at