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On the job, on solid ground The road to finding full-time employment in Quebec has many twists and turns. It also has lots of rotten bridges and overpasses. And that's good news if you're in the construction and engineering business. JEFF HEINRICH, The Gazette Published: 6 hours ago Shoring up all those massive old structures of rusted steel and cracked concrete is keeping many qualified workers on the job this summer. In fact, 2008 is the costliest year ever for infrastructure renewal in the province. How costly? Just look out your car window. Ottawa and Quebec are spending $3.2 billion to fix bridges and overpasses and repair roads at 1,800 sites across Quebec, including several major projects around Montreal. What began with a tragedy - the September 2005 collapse of the de la Concorde Blvd. overpass in Laval, which killed five people - has turned into a massive, government-financed job boom. Motorists may curse, but the boom has been a godsend for those who, it might be said, need a break the most: new immigrants trying to snag a first job in their adopted land. Since January, The Gazette has been following the progress of six of them, all enrolled in an intensive civil-engineering diploma program of 17 students at CEGEP du Vieux Montréal, their costs covered by Emploi-Québec. They wrote their final exams in mid-July and started apprenticing at Montreal-area companies soon after. The unpaid "stages," as they're known in French, last four weeks. The students are keeping a daily log of the 120 hours they're on the job and will return to class at the end of the month to give a PowerPoint presentation summing up their experience. After that, by the end of September or early October, it'll be graduation time. And diploma in hand, the eager engineers will hit the job market, finally getting off government assistance and earning a decent salary. One of the most energetic of the bunch is Agaton Oba-Buya, a Congolese man who spent half his life in Russia before starting a new life here in the spring of 2006 with his Russian wife and their two children. These days the 44-year-old PhD in technical science - who also had an engineering company in his hometown, Brazzaville - wears the hard hat and workboots of Demix Construction, a Longueuil general contractor. He was hired as an apprentice at the firm's Laval office two weeks ago. For Oba-Buya, Quebec's infrastructure woes spell one word: Opportunity. "Le malheur des uns fait le bonheur des autres," he said with a grin this week, quoting Voltaire's famous maxim. It was Tuesday and Oba-Buya had just spent the morning observing repairs to the 55th Ave. overpass of Highway 520, in Dorval, on behalf of his employer, a unit of Ciment Saint-Laurent. There's plenty of good fortune to be made out of Quebec's antiquated infrastructure, and if Oba-Buya keeps up the good work - and the repair contracts keep coming, which no one doubts - there's a good chance he'll turn his apprenticeship into a full-time job. "There's been a great deal of demand for workers because of all these private-public partnerships, projects like Highway 25 (between Montreal and Laval) and Highway 30 (on the South Shore)," said his boss, Dominic Martel, who also took on three others from the CEGEP program this month. "Usually we make do with apprentices out of the university programs, but this summer that wasn't enough, so we jumped at the chance for more workers when the CEGEP called us," he said. "Agaton has an advantage. He has a driver's licence and a car, which means he can easily get to the sites we're working on," he added. "I'm very satisfied with him so far. He expresses himself well, knows the technical terms we use, speaks several languages. He's autonomous, this gentleman, and that's what we're looking for." Getting his foot in the door wasn't easy for Oba-Buya. He sent his CV to close to 80 companies before his apprenticeship supervisor at the college stepped in to help land him an interview at Demix. It was in the interview that he began to practise the fine art of being accommodating. "They told me what projects they're involved in, such as overpasses, aqueducts, asphalt, sewers and drainage, and they asked me which one I felt most qualified to work on. I had experience with dams in Russia, so maybe a drainage project would have been a good choice," recalled Oba-Buya. "But in the end, I just told them to put me wherever I could be useful to the company, and that's what they did." His first day, he got a 45-minute seminar on health-and-safety procedures - essential to the job. (Three years ago, Demix was fined for negligence by the CSST after one of its superintendents was struck by a dump truck and killed at a job along Highway 40 on the West Island. The site is not far from the Dorval site Oba-Buya visited this week.) After the safety course, the budding apprentice was given a mound of documentation to wade through: details of projects, client profiles, bids from subcontractors, cement specifications, ISO norms - "everything so he wouldn't be thrown into a work site and feel like a tourist," Martel said. But what struck Oba-Buya the most was how his boss made a point of introducing him to everyone in the building. To him, that meant he was welcome - something every immigrant dreams of but doesn't always get. "It impressed me a lot - the kindness, the smiles - from everyone, too. It made an important step - leaving my studies, starting a new phase - all that much easier." Then, at the end of the week, he was taken out into the field, to three sites, including the 55th Ave. site. The overpass is so decrepit, it is slated for demolition in 2010. In the meantime it needs to be properly repaired and supported so that traffic, as well as companies like Bell Canada and Vidéotron that have cables to tend to down there, can circulate safely. To that end, Demix and its subcontractors are installing 64 foundation pylons to prop up the overpass. Behind concrete barriers last Tuesday, the site appeared muddy and noisy, its workers' clothing smeared with dust and grime amid the din of generators and drilling machines. Later in the week, Oba-Buya had a choice of revisiting a project on Highway 25, dealing by phone and fax with an electrician subcontracted for a project on Highway 55, and learning billing techniques using Excel software - all tasks he looked forward to with optimism and good cheer. And why not? He's got a whole new life to look forward to. Fall is coming, a big season in Demix's business. The company's human-resources department will likely offer one-year contracts to some of its summer apprentices, Martel said - salaries for management jobs like the one Oba-Buya has his eye on being non-union and strictly negotiable. Now comes Step 2 in the art of being accommodating: Don't ask for too much. As a permanent resident to Canada, not yet a full citizen, Oba-Buya feels the humility of being a newcomer. From his Moscow days, he retains his Russian citizenship and passport (and speaks only Russian at home in Villeray), and that gives him pride. And he remembers being his own boss in Brazzaville, one more thing to be proud of. In this country, he's not holding out for a barrel of gold. He just hopes that come graduation, Demix will hire him as a technician in civil engineering, whatever the salary. "I'll take what they want to pay me," he said. "The money isn't important. The important thing is to get the work." [email protected] THE QUEBEC DREAM: SIX STORIES. Look for Part 4 of this occasional series at the end of August, when reporter Jeff Heinrich checks back in with the students when they return to class to make a presentation about their apprenticeship experience - the final step before graduation. - - - Where they are now Since July 28, the 17 students in the CEGEP du Vieux Montréal's civil-engineering diploma program have been working as apprentices in various sectors. An asterisk (*) appears in front of the names of the six being followed by The Gazette: Real estate and buildings Le Groupe GENINOV Inc., Montreal: *Mohammed Tazi Mezalek, *Marie-Juline Jean-Baptiste and one other student. Construction EBC Inc., Brossard: *Hocine Merzouk, *Lady Alexandra Vega Contreras. Civil engineering Demix Construction (Ciment St-Laurent Inc.), Laval and Longueuil: *Agaton Oba-Buya and three other students. Geotechnical / materials / environment Groupe Qualitas Inc., Montreal: *Ahmed Gherbi. ABS Environnement Inc., Anjou: one student. Labo SM Inc., Longueuil: one student. Solmatech Inc., Repentigny: two students. Industrial engineering GCM Consultants Inc., Anjou: one student. Municipal City of Verdun: one student. Electricity distribution networks Transelec Common Inc.: one student. CEGEP du Vieux Montréal