Seventy workers in the Cariboo Chilcotin are heading back to the classroom to learn computer technology, garner additional industrial certification, or improve basic literacy to high school completion.
The free programs are helping the “nervously employed,” says Shirley-Pat Gale, grants officer for Thompson Rivers University Williams Lake Campus.
“What we know from research done by the beetle action coalition is that more than 45 per cent of adults in our area lack the basic skills and literacy skills they need to cope with everyday life. Many of those at the lower end were the first to lose their jobs because of the mountain pine beetle. It’s that group of people, those nervously employed, that we’re trying to help,” Gale says.
To deliver the programs, TRU has partnered with ESP Consulting and the Cariboo Chilcotin Partners of Literacy Society. Gale says both organizations bring a level of expertise in literacy and essential skills in the work place. The collaboration, she suggests, demonstrates true community economic development by sharing resources. Funding for the programs, around a quarter of a million, is enough to help 70 workers, who may have entered the forest or mining sector when it was good and may not at that point necessarily needed to have a Grade 12 education.
“Now with the change in technology and the changes in those work sites, such as the impact of mountain pine beetle, those individuals are most likely the first to go when there’s a lay off or a shut down. If we can improve their essential skills, they become more employable,” Gale says. Unfortunately, the number 70 probably only represents a portion of the hundreds of workers needing upgrading, but it’s a start.
The funders scored the TRU application the highest and recognized that the region had been underfunded when it came to literacy programs, Gale says. Beginning in November, the program co-ordinators began meeting with organizations in Williams Lake, 100 Mile House and the Cariboo Chilcotin.
“We’ve been to about 60 organizations, from big forest companies to mines, to aboriginal communities, to smaller, five-employee organizations. Primarily forestry and mining are the two sectors we have focused on,” Gale says.
From the assessments, computer literacy is emerging as one of the most important skills workers need, mainly because so much is done on the Internet in this day and age.
“Professional development opportunities are available to workers, but the face-to-face training is maybe only offered once a year, so if they have the computer skills they could get on line and update, improve skills, move up in the organization, and earn more,” Gale explains.
Over the next two months, participants will enroll in one-on-one training, workshops tailored to specific needs, university prep courses or essential skills non-credit courses.
Smiling as she removes her hard hat after meeting with employees at a local sawmill moments before, TRU community co-ordinator Betty Turatus begins the conversation by saying she’s having fun.
Her mantra is “it’s all about the workers.”
Turatus describes the majority as being in their late 30s to mid 50s, all ready to improve their skills, because they understand if they don’t “use it, they’ll lose it.” A few are only after-certificate training because they think it will help them advance in the workplace.
When it comes to computers, the knowledge will help them both at work and in their personal lives.
Some have grandchildren who want to use the computer to communicate with them if they don’t live in the same community.
The accolades roll off her tongue, as she describes the learners as a wonderful bunch of dedicated people, eager to upgrade and succeed.
“I see some of these guys who started in the forest industry when they were 15 or 16 thinking ‘this is good money, it’s going to last forever’ and now it’s not. They’re starting to realize that and wondering what are they going to do if it doesn’t last.”
She’s seen one worker approach the idea hesitantly and then become so avid that he’s bringing other workers along with him.
Turatus visits workplaces with a one-page poster — listing suggestions of different skills training workers can access.
What’s working really well, she points out, is the fact the program can meet the needs of workers, whether they are on day, night, or swing shifts.
And the programs are being offered at TRU, and at some work-place boardrooms.
She’s even gone and done initial meetings at coffee shops with people who are intimidated by going to the campus.
“Developing a program for people that are working is a long time coming and makes so much sense to me,” Turatus says. The program is attempting to remove several barriers.
When she looks at the demographics, she’s noticing many workers quit school when they were teenagers, or they started working young with the lure of a good pay cheque thinking they’d only be there for a few years.
“Thirty years later there’ll still there,” Turatus says.
Gale and Turatus advocate programs like this one are about quality of life.
“It’s about taking an individual where they are at and taking them to where they want to be,” Gale says. “It’s not creating a round hole and trying to stick a peg in it. What we’re trying to do is create programs that best meet individual needs.”
Funding for the programs has come from the Ministry of Advanced Education’s SkillsPlus program to the tune of $244,176, the second highest grant given out in this round of funding.