College feels economic heat

Just you wait, says jobs minister Pat Bell about the challenges that lie ahead for Northwest Community College due to the coming boom.

NORTHWEST COMMUNITY College is experiencing the first of what promises to be a series of challenges as the regional economy heats up.

It’s had to scale back the hands-on portion of a heavy equipment operator training course from two shifts a day to one because it can’t find enough instructors.

That’s reduced the number of students that can be instructed at any one time from 10 to five at a time when demand for skilled operators is increasing.

And in another program, carpentry, students say they can receive cash incentives from employers not to return to continue apprentice training simply because they’re needed on the job.

Provincial jobs minister Pat Bell heard these stories and more on a recent tour of the college’s trades training facilities in Terrace.

“If you think it’s bad news right now, just wait. It’s just awful in the Peace,” said Bell of the overall strain on finding employees because of the ongoing demand for people coming from that region’s oil and gas industry.

“Why would anyone want to make $70-75,000 [a year as an instructor] when he can, with a Class A welding ticket, make $200,000 a year in the field,” said Bell.

Bell’s tour at Northwest Community College included viewing students using its heavy equipment training simulators and a visit to the motocross track just past the airport where students who have completed simulator training, polish their skills on the real thing.

College trades chair Brian Badge, one of the college officials who toured Bell around, said equipment for electrical training needs to be replaced.

The heavy duty equipment program could also use new equipment, Badge said.

Bell acknowledged that one of the biggest challenges is finding the money to buy new and often expensive equipment.

Badge and other college officials also said there was a disconnect between the people who live in the northwest and the demand for skilled labour that’s now beginning to build.

Bell predicted that the region and the west in general will see more and more people move in from Eastern Canada because of declining employment prospects there.

“I see a depopulation in the next decade in Ontario and Quebec,” said Bell. “I think they’re in trouble there.”

The minister visited college facilities across the northwest in addition to Terrace, saying conversations with college officials help in deciding how best to provide capital and operating budgets.