Robotic arms, hydraulic lifts tap young minds

Facing labour shortages, industry eyes elementary students as future workforce

The brains of elementary school students are increasingly the focus of the Nechako Lakes School District’s Career & Trades Programs.

In early December, the district launched the Mobile Robotic & Hyrdaulic Program, a highly technological initiative that uses laptops, robotic arms and other machinery to connect with the minds of elementary students.

“It’s for the students to have some fun and play, but it also gives them a sense of what those day-to-day jobs would look like in a game format,” said Darren Carpenter, coordinator of the Career & Trades Programs.

The $20,000 of machinery, purchased with a combination of tax dollars and grant money, is so sophisticated that even teachers require special operational training, which has been scheduled for Nov. 23.

“It’s pretty exciting, and we’re eager to get it started,” said Carpenter.

The program’s mobile concept isn’t quite fully operational, but coordinators are working with New Gold and the Thompson Creek Metals Company to purchase a trailer and protective casing to transport the machinery to 13 elementary schools in the district.

“They’re excited, it’s just a matter of them being able to participate financially,” Carpenter said of the two mining companies.

The program’s purpose is to provide students with hands-on interactive exposure to robotics, computer programming and hydraulic systems.

Much of this technology already exists in local saw mills and mines that are facing acute labour shortages, said Carpenter.

New Gold in particular is looking at ways of investing in jobs training programs to assemble a qualified workforce of engineers, geologists and tradesperson assistants, among others, to fuel the Blackwater Project.

“We’ve calculated that our future workforce is probably in grade five, six and seven right now,” said Kathie LaForge, community manager for New Gold.

To address labor shortages, New Gold recognizes that incentives, such as assisting with the costs of school and trades training, may be required to forge long-term commitments from workers.

“It’s an exciting project, but if we can’t get labour, it’s going to be a real concern for us,” said LaForge.

This article has been edited to reflect the following correction on Dec. 7, 2012:

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Kathie LaForge, community manager for New Gold.