By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express
For some people, a career path can change in the blink of an eye, whether that be through positive circumstance or, as is the case for some, negative.
Some of those negative circumstances can include being injured or disabled to the point you can’t do the job you once could.
One organization, however, is trying help those people get back to work in one way or another.
“We’re a values-based organization that started off grassroots. People are important to us. That’s who we are,” says Wendy Legere, the CEO of Northern Lights, a company that helps find job placements for approximately 100 people in the region each month.
Northern Lights recently celebrated its 30th anniversary of helping people across the province return to work.
Legere says that the company will work to get people in a field that will use many of the same skills they had at their previous job. However, with a changing labour market, that isn’t always the case.
“Let’s say you’re out of work for a prolonged period of time and/or maybe you don’t have a lot of other skills or you don’t have a lot of other education, and you end up being long-term unemployed,” she says in a hypothetical scenario. “So you might come in…through the Ontario Disability Support Program. What that candidate would do is apply for benefits through ODSP so they can have some money coming in and through, ODSP they would find out about service providers in their area, and we would be one of them.”
From there, Northern Lights works to figure out what the next best step might be, which can range anywhere from going back to school or waiting longer until going back to work.
One line of work that sees many people losing their jobs in and then having to go back to school is manufacturing.
“There’s not a lot of opportunities anymore. Manufacturing has been on the decline for quite some time. GM is a perfect example in this area, and they’re scheduled to get rid of another shift,” Legere says. “Two and three years ago, the ratio used to be one-to-three, so for every GM job lost, there were three other jobs lost in feeder plants. So those individuals working in those environments, there may not be a direct to employment opportunity for them. Many went in straight from high school and have no other job skills.”
Thirty years of history
Northern Lights first got off the ground three decades ago, helping those with disabilities find work.
“We were born in 1985. We started out as a vocational rehab company, so we were meeting the needs of persons with disabilities in rural communities,” says Legere. “And really from 1985 to 1996, we grew fairly slowly throughout the province, and any time any place there was an identified need, we’d go and meet that need.”
That work brought Northern Lights the attention of other groups, such as the Workers’ Compensation Board and insurance companies.
“Something we did different was something called employer-based rehab. That’s taking candidates out to an employer to do assessment, to do a placement so that they’re in a real work environment,” she says.
Things changed for Northern Lights in 1996, when the federal government changed the way it dealt with getting people back to work.
“What they did is they decided they were going to contract out the employment services,” she says. “We were at probably about 40 employees at that point in time, and between 1996 and 2004, we grew to 230 employees.”
Northern Lights continues to work with disabled or injured people to help them find work or get back into the workforce, as well as helping other unemployed people get back to work.
To help mark Northern Lights’ 30th anniversary, the organization gave back to the community, working with Feed the Need and Simcoe Settlement House in Oshawa, as well as other local organizations across the province, in a new initiative called Turn the Tables on Hunger.
The new drive will help bring new food donations to these groups throughout the year, including a one-for-one exchange where when a professional meeting at Northern Lights provides a meal, another meal will be provided at a local soup kitchen or other similar service.
“What Tom’s does with their shoes and their bags, we do with our food,” Legere says. “At our recent Auto21 program, we had 30 participants that we were serving meals for five days, so that’s 150 meals. So we purchased 150 tickets for the soup kitchen in Durham and we donated those to Simcoe Settlement House so they could give them out to the families that are coming in.”