Hundreds of local workers have upgraded their skills through a union funding program and hundreds more openings are available.
The United Steelworkers and both the federal and provincial governments partnered to provide seed money to workers looking to turn their current jobs into something more like a career. The initiative is called the Northern Skills Training program.
"It's a good opportunity for the membership to upgrade their skills in the ever-changing industry," said Frank Everitt, president of the union's local chapter. "If you're going to be competitive on the world stage, we have to be continually improving."
The money is available for workers who want to know their trade better, who want to branch out into other related trades, or want schooling to better grasp the technologies of the industries the union works in. The funding is open to union members across the central interior, and the training is co-ordinated by M. Turner and Associates.
John Townsend has operated industrial machinery all his professional life. He qualified for funding to attend a six-week training course in Winfield focused on road graders and wheel loaders.
"I would say 85 per cent of my costs were covered by the program," Townsend said. "They even covered a lot of my lost time from work. Now I will be much more useful for my employer, and they gave me the time off because they knew this school would give me skills they could use."
Robin Shaver worked at the Tolko mill in Quesnel where he was on their millwright apprenticeship track, but he failed the final test twice, which came close to automatically disqualifing him from further consideration. With some dialogue between the union and the employer, the Northern Skills Training program was seen as a final option for him.
"I couldn't quite get over the hump and pass the test, and I almost called it quits. It caused a really hard time in my life for about six months there," Shaver said. "Being a single dad of two kids, I couldn't afford to take the time off work to take any prep courses but the NST program took care of that, so I did the course, it was really hard (estimated 12 hours of course work per day, in class or homework), but I ended up passing with 81 per cent. If it wasn't for the NST I would not be a certified, ticketed millwright."
Teresa Schweder is the safety designate at Canfor's Prince George Sawmill operation, so she does all the initial workplace site tours for new employees. Each one of them gets a short speech from her about the Northern Skills Program. She knows its benefits personally.
"I am doing the occupational health and safety program through BCIT," said Schweder. There isn't much time left in her day to do a post-secondary course, but course work can be done online and the training program makes sure the fees are out of her way.
"It is an excellent chance for our people to improve and advance," said Gurneal Jaswal, human resources manager for PG Sawmill. "It will make us a lot more competitive at Canfor. We have 14 participating already from PG Sawmill alone. They are getting heavy equipment training, pre-apprenticeship training, first aid, health and safety skills."
The funding envelope was $3 million to be spread over 18 months. It was intended to help about 800 workers, and so far only about 300 have taken extra training, leaving many opportunities still available for union workers to broaden their career opportunities.