Province funds environmental skills training program at Caledonia

B.C. Jobs Plan covers tuition costs associated with the environmental field assistant program at the College of New Caledonia.

A college education, free of charge.

As part of a broad effort to fill vacant jobs in B.C.’s booming environmental sector, the province is providing 36 applicants with free tuition to attend the environmental field assistant program at the College of New Caledonia.

Under the B.C. Jobs Plan, a provincial government initiative to stimulate job creation and strengthen the overall economy, a portion of $326,000 of funding is being invested into the 13-week program, scheduled to begin in January 2013, at the Vanderhoof and Burns Lake campuses.

With the number of job openings in B.C. expected to reach 1-million over the next decade, according to B.C. government figures, the need for skilled Canadian workers in the environmental and resource sectors is reaching a critical level.

“We’re going to be lucky if we can fill half of them without having to deal with immigration or other types of issues,” said John Rustad, Liberal MLA for Nechako Lakes, prior to boarding a flight to a caucus meeting in Vancouver on Wednesday, Oct. 3.

For more than three months, students in the program will study core field skills pertaining to the fisheries and wildlife, natural resource management, and renewable energy sectors.

“It’s a great time for high school graduates because there are going to be so many job openings in those areas over the next decade,” said Rustad.

Because environmental field assistants mainly work outside in relative wilderness, the Caledonia program places greater emphasis on hands-on fieldwork. Monitoring air quality, recording wildlife inventory, and taking, packaging and labeling water samples, for instance, are some skills that students can expect to learn.

Theory, entry-level mathematics and other complex concepts are part of the program’s curriculum as well.

In addition, each aspiring environmental field assistant will acquire a range of safety certifications, from operating ATVs, to transporting dangerous goods, to basic fire suppression.

Electrofishing, the stunning and capturing of fish for scientific survey, one of the program’s most specialized certifications, spans three days, costs about $600 per student and requires professional training not widely offered in B.C. or the rest of Canada, said Maureen Mallais, Caledonia’s regional director for the Nechako region.

“It’s very beneficial when there is no tuition attached,” she said.

Locally, with the advancement of mining and renewable energy projects near Vanderhoof, job opportunities for environmental field assistants have increased over the past several years, according to Stuart Sinclair, president of Avison Management Services Ltd. in Vanderhoof, which employed three assistants last summer to conduct environmental assessments for various projects.

Although demand is limited during winter due to the difficulty of doing fieldwork in snow and ice, the environmental field assistant positions and specialized skills training available through Caledonia “will be a stepping stone for some into a higher education or position,” Stuart indicated in an email.

The program is geared toward attracting outdoor enthusiasts, or anybody who is interested in pursuing a career in the environmental sector, but the B.C. Jobs Plan stipulates that only individuals who are unemployed, underemployed, ineligible for employment insurance, and not currently attending school can apply for the government-funded tuitions.

Still, despite the restrictions, Mallais strongly advises anyone who is interested in enrolling in the program to contact the College of New Caledonia at once, while seats are available.

“If you’re wondering whether or not this program is for you, come in to the college and talk to somebody,” she said.

“Don’t screen yourself out.”