CANOE Network

The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Breaking down barriers for injured workers

By Linda White
Special to The Sun

As president of a learning centre for adults who are looking to rejoin the workforce after workplace accidents, Kate Bird understands the determination needed to succeed. It was determination, after all, that took Career Essentials from the brink of failure to its enviable place as one of Canada's hottest startups.
Career Essentials president

Numerous barriers

Just like the more than 3,000 injured adults who have passed through her doors since 1997, Bird faced numerous barriers before achieving success. She worked for several years as a phys ed teacher, but never felt it was a good fit.

She then spent a year as a teacher and operations manager at an adult learning centre, only to be laid off. When she called clients to say goodbye, they encouraged her to go it on her own.

"I knew the business was closing and clients were wondering what they were going to do," Bird says. "They planted the seed."

She started off with 45 students before even opening her doors. But that success would be short-lived. A change in government legislation meant the Workers Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) -- which had been giving Bird all of her business -- had been offloaded to private agencies.

By May 1999, enrolment had dropped to 15 students. Bird kept staff busy preparing for the students she anticipated. Today, the Markham-based company has 29 locations across the province, a staff of 180 and 550 students at any given time.

Most of the centre's students are WSIB recipients who have been injured on the job. Many others are eligible for training through private insurance and the Ontario Disability Support Program.

"All of our students have some sort of barrier to employment," Bird says. "No two programs are the same ...The training a student receives depends on their needs."
  • Career Essentials Inc. is a learning centre for adults looking to rejoin the workforce after workplace accidents. It offers literacy skills, academic upgrading, English as a Second Language instruction, computer studies, job search techniques, customer service training and GED (General Educational Development) preparation.
  • It offers programs that can prepare students to work as an accounting, purchasing or administrative clerk, call centre agent, medical secretary or a variety of other careers.
  • To learn more, visit

  • Those sponsored by WSIB first work with the board to determine career goals.

    "WSIB looks at how much they were earning, their earning potential and their age. If someone was earning $30 an hour, giving them a higher education saves (WSIB) in the long run," Bird says.

    "Our job is to assess their current skills and design a program to get them where they need to be in order to get back to work. We determine what's missing."

    Class sizes are small -- typically three or fewer students -- and can range in length from just a few weeks to three or four years. An optional

    co-op program that matches students with businesses for 12-week terms is key to bridging the gap to employment.

    "We may have a student who's used to working in construction and is now going into an office environment. The co-op program is such an enormous help," Bird says.

    Range of attitudes

    "We see a wide range of injuries and a wide range of attitudes. Some don't have a say in their participation in the programs. A lot assume it's going to be like high school ... but we're much faster at getting them where they need to go," Bird says. "The vast majority -- even when they're bitter when they come in -- recognize that this is good for them and that we're here to help them."

    Last year, Bird was named in the 6th annual PROFIT W100 ranking of Canada's Top Women Entrepreneurs and in 2002 was named Canadian Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Startup by Rotman School of Management. Career Essentials was listed on Canada's Hottest Startups in 2001 and 2002 by PROFIT magazine.

    Bird has surrounded herself with a strong team and says letting go of the reins has been key to success.

    "I have no problem delegating to staff. Each of our seven senior managers started out as a teacher with us. I take great pride in seeing them succeed," she says.

    "It's great to be part of a successful enterprise, but that it's a socially responsible one makes it even better."

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