FLIN FLON — After nearly nine decades in the business, this rock of a community knows mining.
What better place, then, to train the next generation of employees for northern Manitoba’s growing mineral sector?
With much fanfare (and following a few delays), the Northern Manitoba Mining Academy opened its doors in downtown Flin Flon on Sept. 28.
"A shortage of skilled, trained people for the mining sector is one of the single biggest challenges (the industry faces)," Premier Greg Selinger said. "(There are) opportunities to train people in the north to do well-paying, high quality jobs for a whole career, so this mining academy will accommodate that."
Under the umbrella of University College of the North, the academy comes complete with a sophisticated geological laboratory. It features distance technology that allows individuals in faraway communities to view the same rock sample, for instance, as students on-site.
Another major draw is an electronic simulator at which a student sits at a mock dashboard surrounded by projection screens. With realistic images, sounds and even vibrations, students operate virtual versions of the trucks and other heavy equipment deployed in underground mines.
Although its purpose is far more important than mere amusement, it’s tempting to call the simulator an ultra-realistic video game. Mind you, there is no high score, and no cheat code will save you if you end up spinning your tires in the muck.
Acting director Rob Penner says the academy is unlike a traditional learning institution in that the types of courses, number of programs and even the enrollment will be shaped around the needs of students and industry.
"This is not an academy in a sense of what we generally think of as academic institutions where we have a repertoire of courses that we offer and they run from September through to April and there are certificates and degrees and diplomas that are awarded," he says.
The academy promises to draw students from across northern Manitoba hoping to find work in an industry that, while notoriously cyclical, has put food on the table for generations of northerners.
A key goal will be to help aboriginals, too often unemployed or underemployed, particularly in the north, take on a larger role in the mining workplaces of tomorrow.
But many outside of this region are also taking notice.
A variety of Canadian universities, including Laurentian and the University of Calgary, already bring geoscience students to Flin Flon to examine the world-renowned geology. Officials from some of those universities have toured the academy and are interested in learning more.
In the case of Laurentian, Penner says, officials are "quite excited" about inviting international colleagues to come to the Flin Flon region as well.
And the potential for global exposure does not end there. With Hudbay, which runs the mine in Flin Flon, owning a copper project overseas, Penner says the company has been touting Flin Flon as a learning hub for some international researchers and potential employees.
While the academy is physically grounded in Flin Flon, its reach will be much broader. Penner says the idea is to make it "a hub with spokes radiating out of it."
"So not everything is going to be happening out of the academy," he says. "Some of our programming will be run in other locations. Some of it will entail people from other locations just coming for certain components. So it’s going to be highly, highly variable how many people are there at any one time."
At 3,500 square feet, the academy is hardly immense. And the facility, when combined with the new UCN Regional Centre next door, carried a rather modest budget of about $4.3 million, most of which came from the federal and provincial governments.
With mining going strong in Flin Flon, Snow Lake and Thompson, and with good potential for other mines to open throughout the north, the need for the mining academy has never been more pivotal.
And as Premier Selinger so aptly put it: "Flin Flon is the right place to do this."
Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.