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Tools for the trades

Thousands of northern jobs are available, but grooming homegrown talent is the challenge for educators

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Teacher Matt Lind with students at Egg Lake's engaged learners program.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Teacher Matt Lind with students at Egg Lake's engaged learners program. Photo Store

Chances are you've never heard of Egg Lake.

It's really important, though, like a secret base in the bush, just to the west of Highway 10 between The Pas and Flin Flon.

And remember it -- places such as Egg Lake will determine whether aboriginal kids with abysmal graduation rates and inadequate funding and often no local school will get the same opportunity as city kids to have a decent life that benefits all of us.

Frontier School Division's engaged learners program in an old correctional centre at Egg Lake will educate 46 young people just enough this winter that they'll be able to take another shot at a real education and likely at mastering a trade the north desperately needs. (See Saturday's 49.8 section, for more on Egg Lake and other alternative schools of the north.)

Egg Lake is a bunch of educators tossing bureaucracy and jurisdictional boundaries and any notion of 'can't' out the window, to help young people get educated.

Throughout northern Manitoba, innovative educators are finding ways to help young people finish high school and learn a career skill.

"They don't worry about jurisdictional boundaries, they don't worry about provincial boundaries, they do what is in the best interests of the learners," said Education Minister Nancy Allan. "We don't have jurisdiction over First Nation reserves -- (but) nobody turns their back on them."

You're from a First Nation in northern Saskatchewan and your best shot at a good life is a public school in Flin Flon? No sweat -- the people who'll find you a spot in the classroom will worry later about who's responsible for funding that spot.

"I think it's awesome," said Jamie Wilson, Manitoba's treaty commissioner and former education director at Opaskweeyak Cree Nation near The Pas, who said overcoming obstacles is far less cumbersome when everyone in the north seems to know everyone else.

"Northern communities are saying learning should be constant, delivery should be varied. That's a hard thing for a big bureaucracy to manage," Wilson said. "It's such an opportunity. There's a skilled-labour shortage looming in the north, and there's an unemployment crisis in the north."

Cranberry Portage is a hub for the north, Allan said.

Last year, Allan officially opened the Northern Trades Centre, the only technical-vocational public high school in the north, on the campus of the residential Frontier Collegiate, which is on a former air force radar base.

"Our goal is to continue to work with them as they determine what their needs are," Allan said.

"We need to provide opportunities for northern students in the north -- we haven't sat around and waited for the federal government to step up."

It's no surprise credits in carpentry, industrial mechanics and building construction highlight school life in Cranberry Portage.

"We want to capture the best workers that are available. The people are there, and we're not going anywhere," said Grand Chief David Harper of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak.

"There needs to be a way for training for youth up north, way more," Harper said. "We have young people who've gone to school who still don't have jobs.

"The mining companies have to step up in terms of training," the grand chief said. "We've got to bring everyone together."

Doug Lauvstad of the Northern Manitoba Sector Council predicts the north will need about 2,000 to 2,500 skilled young people -- for all industrial trades -- during the next five years.

To address the crunch, high school apprenticeships and a power engineer training program are needed.

"That's a no-brainer," he said.

"The average age in many industries is the mid- to late-40s. We have really intense competition from other jurisdictions. The big city certainly draws away our young people."

Mining giant Vale is always hiring skilled trades in Thompson, said Ryan Land, the company's manager of corporate affairs and organizational development, but keeping workers is always tough.

Currently, the company is short 20 industrial mechanics.

"There is not yet a reliable workforce pipeline for trades and technical areas," said Land, a former principal of R.D. Parker Collegiate in Thompson.

Employers lose 50 per cent of southern hires in the first two years, for reasons of family and geography. The family doesn't like the north, the skilled worker really relished a job in Winnipeg all along.

In the last two years, "It's absolutely shifted to a grow-our-own strategy. Northern people for northern jobs -- increasingly, we're adding northern-trained to that," Land said.

Northern employers have overhauled hiring standards, which had been Grade 12 and five years' experience. "We heard from communities that fewer than 25 per cent of our young people are graduates. If you're on a seasonal road crew, it's going to take you 25 years to get five years' industrial experience," he said.

Now, hiring keys on an essential-skills assessment.

Employers look at aptitude and attitude, with three levels of provincially assisted training and raising awareness of jobs available.

Everyone is hoping to see the second phase of University College of the North's Thompson campus -- an industrial skills training technical centre -- accelerated, said Land.

"Within the last year, we've hired 100 per cent of labourers within the region," he said. But, "In Thompson, it's light on trades and technology. We have an $85-million campus, and there's not a lot of shop space in it."

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 18, 2013 A4

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