Training Northerners to work in the North

Lynsey Kitching
One of the most interesting presentations at the recent coal forum was a co-presentation by Donna Merry, Campus Administrator from Northern Lights College (NLC) for Chetwynd and Tumbler Ridge, and from West Moberly First Nations (WMFN) Councillor Dokkie and Chief Willson. 
In the coal mining industry here in Northeastern BC, the average age of mining workers is higher than the Canadian average. About 40 percent of employees in the mining industry are expected to retire by 2018. Over the next decade the mining industry will require about 92,000 new workers. 
On top of this, Northeastern BC mines continue to struggle with attrition rates ranging from 25 to 30 percent annually. This is unique to our region. Merry said, “We are aware of the challenges this is causing for the industry. The goal of industry is to engage employees who already live in the north, to stay in the north. That is what this training has been modeled around. I am intimately aware of the training needs for the mining industry and have been delighted to develop a relationship with First Nation communities in offering Aboriginal training.”
Chief Willson talked a little about the history of WMFN and their connection to the mining industry. “We’ve been operating in this area since the Ice Age. Our history on the land here is well documented. We have participated in coal mining in the recent years. WMFN is involved in coal. We are involved in all the resources up here that are being developed right now. We are in favour of coal where it makes sense; where we can do it responsibly and keep in line with Moberly standards of how we want to see development transpire on the land.”
Chief Willson continued to talk a little about how WMFN has been involved with different mining companies in the area, “We developed the mine for Pine Valley. We also worked on the Wolverine and Brule mines for Walter Energy and right now we are working with PRC in the mining training we are doing.”
Councillor Dookie focused in on the Mining Fundamentals program and talked a little about his role in developing and implementing the project, “It is a partnership between ASEP (Aboriginal Skills and Employment Partnership program), Peace River Coal (PRC), the college and WMFN. I played lead for West Moberly in terms of making sure we played our part and to ensure there was a success rate for this project. It ran for about a year and a half. It’s probably the most successful program I’ve seen in the last 34 years I’ve been involved in any training. It’s something that should be looked at in terms of a training model.”
During the presentation, there was a video shown to allow some of the course participants to speak and to showcase the Mining Fundamentals course. During the video Chief Willson said, “The difference between this and any other training we’ve had is that there is a commitment to hire. PRC has stepped up and said they would place everyone who comes through the program.”
This commitment from PRC was upheld. The graduation rate for the program was 95 percent and 90 percent went directly into employment. After two and half years of running the program, there have been nine cohorts through, with 45 members from the WMFN having participated in the program. From these 45 students, there has been an 87 percent retention rate at the mines.
Clarence Wilson, Councillor for WMFN said in the video, “This is a new career path for the people who choose to go down this road. All of the people who are in the program will have the option to further their training within the company, once they get started. They are all going to be driving rock trucks at the beginning, but there are opportunities to move up and get training in other fields inside the mining industry.”
Gordon Miller, program graduate said, “It’s something new. It’s a change from what I used to do. Course wise, it’s really smooth. We gotta do it. All the math and computer stuff, we just gotta do it. The mine rescue and fall protection material is pretty cool.”
Charlene Bigfoot, who has become a role model in her community said, “There was lots to learn. We had some of the drivers who have been here for a number of years train us with hands on training. To have someone actually point out exactly what you need to do is pretty cool.”

The Mining Fundamentals course was the focus of the presentation because it is a course that people can take to learn the necessary skills for entry—level positions at local mines. Merry said, “The Mining Fundamentals course is career entry. As the unions dictate, haul truck driving and laboring are the entry level positions. That is what this program is focused on. That is what this is about. It’s about keeping people in the north and keeping them employed in their positions,” she continues, “Most of the students are local, or related to local people. We have had students come from Vancouver Island or Alberta, who had to move here to get the funding. Those kinds of bonds are what we dreamed of for how we were going to recruit people for this program.”
NLC is continuing to offer programs tailored specifically for our regional needs. They are offering the Mining Fundaments and Professional Office Skills programs as well as On—demand and Workforce Training courses. Other courses include Applied Business Technology, Administrative assistant, Financial Assistant, and Office Assistant. The list of courses goes on, and on. After the forum, Donna Merry said the event went very well. She commented, “We received feedback from industry partners interested in talking more about the mining program, and to invite discussion about other programming to serve their coming needs.”
As for when the program is going to run again Merry said, “There is no specific timetable for running the program next, but we are looking at funding options to support students in the mining program. To date, we have relied on outside funding sources such as the ASEP federal funding and the LMC ESA provincial funding that we have received to run the Aboriginal Training programs and Mothers to Miners programs. We are always looking at offering programs that meet the needs of community and industry partners.”