Indigenous software-testing company offers skills and jobs in New Brunswick

Written by JOYITA SENGUPTA, The Globe and Mail (read original)

From left: Devin Brooks, Shawnee Polchis-Lanteigne and Indigo Poirier work on a project at the offices of PQA Testing in Fredericton, NB.
(James West/The Globe and Mail)

Shawnee Polchis-Lanteigne went from working at a call centre in New Brunswick to a job in information technology. The career transition was made possible through a training program that helps Indigenous people get vital skills as software testers with a guaranteed job offer at the end.

“Aboriginal people have a keen eye for differences and that’s very key for software testing because you need to find things that the average Joe wouldn’t find,” said Ms. Polchis-Lanteigne, who heard of the training opportunity that lead to her new job through her aunt.

It was the desire to help the young Indigenous population of New Brunswick that gave Keith McIntosh the motivation to start the Aboriginal Software Tester Training Course, a six-month program with no prerequisites other than having aboriginal heritage and an interest in IT.

“The fastest growing demographic in New Brunswick is the young Indigenous person, and they are chronically undereducated and chronically underemployed,” Mr. McIntosh said. “How do we address some of those problems? How do we bring corporate Canada to the Indigenous people of Canada?”

Mr. McIntosh is president and founder of Professional Quality Assurance Ltd., a Fredericton-based company that provides software-testing services. He started the aboriginal training course in 2015 as well as PLATO Testing, a company he established to work in conjunction with the skill-development program. Those who complete the training course are guaranteed a job offer by PLATO.

It’s not just about providing jobs but also filling a need for homegrown IT professionals.

“I run a testing company that’s competing for work that goes offshore,” Mr. McIntosh said.

The overall unemployment rate in New Brunswick as of last month was 8.4 per cent, nearly two points above the national average. According to a labour-force report put out by the province in 2013 – the last time a survey of this kind was conducted – the unemployment rate for aboriginal people stood at 20.8 per cent, nearly double that of non-aboriginals at 10.7 per cent.

To get the training program off the ground, Mr. McIntosh partnered with the Joint Economic Development Initiative, an Indigenous organization that had a number of existing training-to-employment programs for aboriginal people in place already. Gwen McIntyre, the communications manager at JEDI, explained that the organization’s close ties to First Nations communities in the province helped bring in applicants for the software-training program, which has since been well received.

“It’s a new industry that maybe aboriginal people in the area haven’t been inclined to go into before,” Ms. McIntyre said. “Plus, people are able to work near their communities in a good paying job.” There are 65 Indigenous employees working with PLATO in three locations: Fredericton, Miramichi and Vancouver, the first one outside of New Brunswick. Sixty-three of them are software testers.

Among them is Devin Brooks, a team lead who has been with the company since September, 2016, after starting the training program in April of last year.

Mr. Brooks heard about the program through friends and with just a high-school education, the 22-year-old applied, not knowing how it would pan out.

“I didn’t really expect it. You’re always skeptical when you hear about something like this,” Mr. Brooks said. “I just knew that I wanted to be in a position where when I do my work … because someone is watching it and evaluating it and making sure, I’m going to know what I’m doing.”

Collège communautaire du Nouveau-Brunswick worked with Professional Quality Assurance Ltd. and PLATO Testing to make the training program a college-certificate course last fall.

For 44-year-old Keith Joe of Esgenoopetitj First Nation, the program allowed him take on a career that was quite a departure from his previous jobs at a snow-crab factory and a metal fabrication factory. He was a part of the first group of students.

“When I first learned about IT, I didn’t know anything about computers. I needed something that paid the bills and I saw that this program offered a full-time job at the end,” Mr. Joe said. “I knew everything was going digital and I figured I should hop on the bandwagon. Seemed like a good leap to take because you can always upgrade your skills.”

He works at PLATO’s Miramichi office as a team leader for the company’s work with LogMeIn Inc., a software firm based in Boston. His younger brother is currently enrolled in the training program.

LogMeIn’s Kharis Eubanks, director of engineering and e-commerce, says the partnership with PLATO has allowed the company to boost staffing levels when required. From a client’s perspective, he said it’s a win-win.

“The more we can help people get involved the high-tech space, the more it helps everybody,” Mr. Eubanks said. “Specifically with PLATO, you get a high level of aptitude and skill at a very reasonable rate.”

The growth of the company and the training program has been in line with what Mr. McIntosh had projected. He hopes to grow to 250 employees within the next year and his ultimate goal is to have 1,000 employees in 20 offices located in or near Indigenous communities.

Beyond providing work in the IT field, some employees have said the company’s Indigenous leadership and backing have offered a different kind of support. Indigo Rain Poirier began her gender transition after starting the training program.

“[They] were really supportive. … Because there are a lot of places where they wouldn’t want to say it but they wouldn’t be supportive,” said Ms. Poirier, who works with the company’s content department.

She says the initiative is “giving people permission to be successful.”

“Sometimes people just need that because they haven’t been told that they can be,” Ms. Poirier said.