Students with learning barriers gain employment skills

Port Alberni, BC

Curtis Lucas, a young Hesquiaht man with learning barriers, smiles proudly as his instructor guides him through proper techniques for cutting down invasive Scotch broom. Not far away, Gary Peter of Ditidaht, also with learning barriers, is operating a gas mower as he cleans up the lawn at Port Alberni’s North Island College.

In a classroom, not far away, Jerami Sam of Ahousaht is taking a class on ladder safety in a custodial training course.

These young people are part of the Employment Transition Grounds & Custodial Assistant Program offered through North Island College’s Department of Accessible Learning Services (DALS).

The department provides support to North Island College students who identify as having a disability which may impact their ability to study.

Faculty at DALS consult with potential students to determine how they can be accommodated in a classroom setting so that they can fully participate. Special needs students may have disabilities that affect things such as learning, mental health, physical health, hearing or vision.

The Employment Transition Grounds & Custodial Assistant Program began Jan. 12, 2021 at the Port Alberni NIC campus. There are a dozen students, including three Nuu-chah-nulth-aht, learning janitorial and grounds-keeping skills that will qualify them for employment upon completion of the 26-week program. In addition, there are two Métis students and one Métis instructor.

“This program provides students with diverse learning needs an opportunity to attend employability courses, gain work-related certificates and receive industry-specific skill development training in basic grounds maintenance/horticulture and custodial/light duty cleaner areas,” states the North Island College website.

According to faculty member Erin Cathro, the program started in 2020 as a pilot project but was sidetracked due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2020 DALS class wasn’t completed due to the pandemic, so this year two cohorts are blended. When they go out for their work experience in various Port Alberni businesses or service establishments, one cohort will work on custodial jobs while the other does grounds maintenance. After two weeks the cohorts switch.

The 12 students took part in online classes from January to May 2021 under the instruction of Cathro. This was followed by three weeks of in-classroom instruction on applied outdoor groundskeeping with instructor Chemus McNulty and custodial training with Corissa O’Donnell.

Work experience placement will begin Monday, May 31. Students will be placed with employers where they will be doing custodial work, like cleaning floors and walls or mowing lawns and tending gardens. Cathro says the students work for free in return for orientation, training and the provision of a supervisor to the students.

According to O’Donnell, the students spent the first four months of the year earning training certification, like WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System), FoodSafe and basic first aid.

Besides certification courses, the students learn industry-specific skills and take part in job shadow practicums and supported work placement.

They have gone on field trips to places like local seniors’ care homes where they can observe professional employees using industrial disinfecting and cleaning equipment.

The two cohorts have been offered training placements at Ty Watson House, Rollin Art Centre, Port Alberni Friendship Center, the Port Alberni Food Hub and others.

According to Cathro, the government-funded program covers the cost of the students’ work at their placements. In exchange, the employers promise to keep the trainees in mind if and when they decide to hire for those positions.

Upon completion, students will be ready to work in the accommodations sector of the tourism industry, such as hotels and motels, or in hospital and health care centres. Some have worked at Arbutus RV cleaning recreational vehicles and others have worked at seniors’ facilities. They may find work at parks, golf courses or even garden centres.

For more information about this or upcoming DALS programs, contact Erin Cathro at or call her at 250-724-8764.

Share this: