Fernie’s College of the Rockies (COTR) campus could be receiving an expansion in the future. Seeing a need for more skills training in the Elk Valley, Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett met with representatives of the college, Teck Coal, Canfor, Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, Tourism Fernie, and local government officials on January 28.
With a future shortage of skilled workers in the area, the meeting’s objective was to discuss the possible growth of COTR in Fernie.
“We know there is going to be about a million new jobs over the next 10 or 15 years and frankly, we don’t know who is going to fill them,” said Bennett. “If all of our high school students stayed in British Columbia, and all got trained in the right things, we still wouldn’t have enough people to fill those jobs. Today, and for the past few years, we’ve seen companies like Teck have to go to temporary foreign workers. The same thing is happening in the forest industry.”
Bennett believes there is an opportunity in the Elk Valley specifically to develop additional skills training, but a larger college campus would be a necessary first step.
“The campus has outgrown the existing space that we’ve got. We’re limited by space for facilities in delivering on some of the new opportunities in the region,” explained COTR President Dr. Nick Rubidge. “The building has been identified as requiring $1.2 million in upgrades to maintain its current level, and we do have to ask if this investment would be the best use of taxpayers’ money.
“With a critical skill labour shortage faced by local employers, as well as with many international opportunities as the result of our spectacular location, and our reputation around the world, we see limitless opportunities for this campus as we move forward.”
Representing Teck Coal, Manager of Human Resources Glen Campbell was certainly in favour of the idea.
“We have a definite interest in seeing a strong, vibrant College of the Rockies campus in Fernie,” commented Campbell. “We hired just over 700 employees in 2012 and about the same the year before. In the future, those numbers will continue to be in that ballpark.
That’s a lot of people that we’re recruiting locally, if they have the skills, and from outside. In both cases, it’s really important from a retraction and retention perspective that these families have a strong college right in their backyard.”
Also giving her support was Laura Curnow, Manager of Human Resources for Canfor’s Elko mill. She remarked, “We would certainly like to see a trade centre here if that’s at all possible. If they would take in millwrights, electricians, heavy duty mechanics, for sure we could make use of that.”
Chiming in from a tourism standpoint, General Manager of Fernie Alpine Resort, Andy Cohen, sees the potential for a college expansion to result in new training programs.
“There’s a huge opportunity in the Elk Valley for food and beverage training. Every restaurant I know of since I’ve been involved in Fernie has had a difficult time,” said Cohen. “It’s been difficult to find people who actually have the skills to run those businesses successfully.”
Cohen went on to say that an expansion would not only benefit students, but the community of Fernie as a whole.
“The campus itself is not a focal point, but I think it could be. It’s not a place where you go and gather, have meetings, and actually do stuff unless you’re specifically in a course. I think it’s an opportunity and of course, meeting space is a premium in town.”
As the meeting progressed several other ideas and developments that could correspond with a revamped COTR campus were brought up, including affordable student housing, childcare, and a convention centre.
While it was clear that everyone in attendance was in support of an expansion, Bennett reinforced that the meeting was the very first step in what could be a lengthy process.
“This is a long term project, this involves big dollars, nothing is going to emerge from out of the ground over the next year or so,” he said. “We’ve got lots of things going for us that other places don’t have. The mines, the forest industry, and tourism industry are all here. This is one of the nicest places in the world to live, that’s another big thing, but we’re still going to have to work really hard to put a business case together that’s persuasive.”
He added, “If there was a public-private partnership in this somehow, that would aid us.
At some point in the development of the idea into a real project I plan to go and talk to the folks at Teck in Vancouver about an investment. I might even do the same with Canfor.”
The next steps towards a COTR expansion will include community consultation, asking the province for an investment, and creating a business plan.