Fourteen students from Northern Manitoba – a dozen of them who have been affected by job cuts at Vale – graduated Dec. 14 from the first heavy equipment operators certificate course put on in Thompson by the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association (MHCA) and University College of the North’s (UCN) Northern Workforce Development Centre (NWDC).
“This was a group effort between the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association, Northern Workforce Development Centre, including the Northern Manitoba Sector Council and the Workforce Adjustment Services [for laid-off Vale employees] to try to help some people in the north that are affected from Vale and not necessarily only Vale-affected employees,” said training subcontractor Geoff Greenfield, whose own job at Nor-West Manufacturing is also affected by Vale’s transition to a mining and milling only operation. “We want to help anybody that feels they have a need for training so we had actually people from out of town, from outlying communities coming in, and I think the next course is all outlying communities which is going to be huge. That’s really what it’s all about is trying to help individuals get further or better themselves.”
The two students who weren’t Vale-affected workers are from Norway House and enrolled in the course to learn about operating excavators, bulldozers, graders and front-end loaders.
“The hardest equipment to learn on the simulator would probably be the grader,” said Brian Captain of Norway House, who saw the course advertised online and was encouraged to enrol by his father, who has worked in construction and heavy equipment. “Ask any one of these guys that took the course, they’ll tell you they don’t like the grader. The controls, the maneuvering, the articulation, trying to level. You have to do everything. Your hands are non-stop moving.”
Kunal Mahajan of Workforce Adjustment Services says the course here was offered at a much lower cost than people may pay if they go to Winnipeg for the same training, with the added benefit that it keeps people in the north.
“This is the transition time for Thompson that people want to move from here,” said Mahajan. “This kind of training keeps them in Thompson and people are paying like $17,000 for this course to go to Winnipeg and then they are never coming back. Jobs are here. That’s a very good approach by UCN, the Northern Workforce Development Centre.”
Thompson Mayor Colleen Smook said training like this needs to be offered on an ongoing basis, not just in a project-based format like it has in the past, and Greenfield agrees.
“This training facility ... I think could have been here years ago or needed to be here years ago and now that it’s here it’s going to change people's lives and that’s my take on it,” he said. “I’m hoping other people see the same thing.”
Colleen MacIntyre was one of the Vale-affected employees who took the course, as well as the only woman. She began working at Vale after nearly a decade at the hospital because she wanted a more physical job.
“I got laid off from there and then I heard about this course so I decided, ‘Let’s challenge it,” she said. “The first equipment I ever worked on was a forklift and that was at Vale. I’ve never done this kind of stuff before. It was a little challenging at first but as you get more into it it gets a little easier. The theory was awesome, the classroom stuff. I’d just like to encourage a lot of other women to get into this. Me personally, I like working with guys, too. It’s kind of nice.”
A second offering of the heavy equipment operator’s certificate course is already fully booked and a third is half full, said Mahajan.
Smook said initiatives like these will help Thompson weather the economic storm that the closure of Vale’s smelter and refinery precipitated.
“We just can’t be afraid to invest in Thompson and that doesn't always have to be money,” said the mayor. “We’ve got to make sure as a city and as a community we’re backing all these people to stay here. You guys are all part of it. Congratulations on everything you’ve done.”