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Shipbuilder achieves childhood career dream during pandemic

A man standing on the sidewalk on a residential city street, smiling at the camera.
Unique Jones-MacKenzie is one of 20 graduates from the first-ever Pathways to Shipbuilding Program for African Nova Scotians, which concluded at the Halifax Shipyard during the global pandemic. (LINDSAY MCMULLEN)

It’s been just over two years since 20 students from across Nova Scotia took their first steps to become welders through the Pathways to Shipbuilding Program for African Nova Scotians. In May 2020, all 20 students who’d began the program in 2018, became NSCC graduates and were offered full-time employment. The momentous occasion marked the conclusion for the fourth cohort of the award-winning program and a second chance at childhood dream for Unique Jones-MacKenzie.

“I was in the Options and Opportunities (O2) Program in Grade 10,” says Unique. “I did a bunch of different co-ops and tried trades like carpentry and plumbing to see what I liked. Through the program, I earned a guaranteed seat at NSCC for Welding, but I didn’t have the funds to get there, so I had to give up on it.”

Fortunately for Unique, another opportunity arose. He was accepted into an entrepreneurship-focused, youth program in Halifax. The opportunity allowed him to earn a living and launch his own clothing brand.

From shirts to ships

“I was walking down the street one day in 2018 and a friend stopped me and said, ‘did you hear about this welding program that’s going on at NSCC?’ I hadn’t, but they said someone had already referred me, which was needed to apply. I went home and applied right away.”

After an interview to determine suitability, experience and interest, Unique found himself on the waitlist. Fortunately, his patience was rewarded when an acceptance letter, including program details and funding information, arrived in his email.

“By luck, I made it in,” he says. “I called my family right away. They were so happy and wanted to see me succeed. I just wanted to get started!”

The program began with a 14-week session with program sponsor, the East Preston Empowerment Academy (EPEA), which allowed participants to complete academic refreshing, essential skills training and undergo career exploration. Unique says that while he hoped to be on the path to becoming a welder sooner in life, he was excited to finally be making it happen.

A family of welders

“Not being the same or being the only Black person in some of my classes meant I could never really be comfortable — I couldn’t be me,” says Unique of his high school experience. “This was different. At Akerley Campus, it was like we all became a big family. I didn’t have that before. It was a pretty great fit for me.”

He explains that this bond was forged early on as NSCC, Irving Shipbuilding and the EPEA planned extracurricular learning activities that allowed students to get to know one another while celebrating their cultural identity.

“We had speakers come in like Senator Dr. Wanda Thomas Bernard and filmmaker Sobaz Benjamin,” says Unique. “There was also African Drumming and a lot of other things that gave us an opportunity to hang out. It was incredibly motivating, especially hearing from Senator Bernard. To hear about where she’s been and how she worked her way up. It was life-changing. I will never forget it.”

The family bond wasn’t limited to having fun says Unique, it was an effective support system too.

“Each and every classmate wanted me to succeed,” he says. “And I wanted them to. We all had our own learning curves. Math was the hardest part for me. But we all helped each other. If someone struggled, we had their back.”

Unique also took advantage of free learning supports offered through Student Services such as tutoring and test preparation.

Learning interrupted

In March 2020, Unique’s learning journey was interrupted when the global pandemic prompted a State of Emergency for Nova Scotia. Like all Nova Scotians, Unique and his classmates were asked to stay home and stay safe. This meant he was unable to complete the final work required to conclude the program – most notably, essential training required by the Canadian Welding Bureau in order to work in shipbuilding.

“I was upset, but I understood,” he says. “They didn’t want to risk people’s lives. I was really worried that the pandemic and the lockdown would go on for a long time and I wouldn’t be able to use all the skills that I went to school for.”

With some creative planning, the Pathways partners developed a plan to move much of the required training online and extend the on-the-job training component of the program — allowing students to complete their on-site learning once required safety measures had been put in place. In October 2020, Unique got the call that his wait was over.

Back to work

“I was nervous at first. Not about getting sick, but it’d been a long time since I’d welded. I was also worried about another lockdown and what the future held.” His fears dissipated when he arrived at the Halifax Shipyard.

“We got to meet our mentors — including Antonia Wareham who is a Pathways to Shipbuilding grad too. She and Roddie Johnson, our other mentor, went out of their way to support us. We got introduced to a few new trades, learned some new things and had fun too. It was all very exciting.”

Since starting at the shipyard, Unique has worked on two Arctic and Offshore Patrol (AOP) Vessels. “I can’t wait to be able to show these ships to my daughter one day and say: ‘I built that!’”

He’s also launched a second clothing brand: Fear Clothing. The brand pays tribute to the journey he’s been on over the last number of years and encourages others to rise out of the negativity and pain that may have held them back and to choose love and positivity instead.

Unique says he’s witnessed the results of his brand’s message through the program, “We had great instructors, supportive mentors, the resources we needed. We looked out for one another like family and that’s what got us through. That’s what got us to where we are.”

SENATOR WANDA ELAINE THOMAS BERNARD

The Pathways to Shipbuilding Program is breaking systemic and historic barriers and is creating real opportunities for African Nova Scotians. Our hope is that this program will become a model that can and will be used in other fields.

Senator, Dr. Wanda Thomas Bernard
~ During the Pathways to Shipbuilding for African Nova Scotians Program launch in 2018

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