People without jobs, and jobs without people.

Temporary foreign workers are being sent home, but jobs in Alberta, particularly as health care aides, resident companions for the elderly, in retail, janitorial and on production floors, still go begging.

Good jobs, too. They might have uncertain and/or odd hours, but most clock in around $20 an hour.

According to a CIBC market study in 2012, 20% of the Canadian labour market was already showing signs of skilled worker shortages.

On the flip side, Alberta’s recent immigrants in 2013 represented 21.5% of all unemployed Albertans.

Alberta’s aboriginal unemployment rate as of Jan. 2013 was at 8.8%. That figure is steady improving, thanks to some powerful partnerships, but still well above the 4.2% overall unemployment rate.

There’s a solution. It’s being delivered by Alberta’s 11 “Comprehensive Community Institutions” of which Edmonton’s NorQuest College, with 10,000 full and part-time students, is the second biggest.

It’s taken a long time, but the educational powers-that-be in this province have finally realized the obvious. We are producing skilled technicians and tradespeople from NAIT, engineers and doctors from the University of Alberta, versatile and highly trainable minds from MacEwan, Athabasca and other post-secondary institutions across Northern Alberta.

At the same time, the knowledge economy is fast filtering down to the most basic of jobs. Janitors, for instance, don’t swab the hall with mops any more, they operate complex cleaning machines and perform complex cleaning operations. They’re no longer “janitors” but “building service workers”.

NorQuest College has been the unsung hero of the recent immigrant, the single-parent mom and the second-chancers. It’s quietly toiled away at upgrading the education, English, and skill-sets of those who would not be accepted at other post-secondary institutions, to become todays’ sophisticated blue collar workers.

Equally important, the school is adept at individual hand-holding, helping new immigrants understand and adapt to Canadian culture, working on social skills, confidence issues and so on.

Now, after a decade of knocking on the door for capital funding, NorQuest is earning its due.

The Alberta government has finally found $170 million for NorQuest to consolidate its rabbits’ warren of teaching spaces into one big building alongside its existing main building at 108 Street and 102 Avenue.

Hotelier and philanthropist Dr. Prem Singhmar, an immigrant himself, had made a lead $2.5 million donation to augment the provincial funding. 

It’s not only about unsung heroism, suggests NorQuest’s President and CEO Jodi Abbot. It’s about colleges like NorQuest working smarter, joining at the hip with industry, the public sector, aboriginal and immigrant communities and other educational bodies to create one massive, intertwined ecosystem - responding quickly and sensitively to emerging job and community needs.

In other words, better matching student skills and training to job availability.

A NorQuest Workforce Advisory Committee – with working sub-committees in Construction, Financial Services, Health & Wellness, Hospitality & Service and Manufacturing – has serious input into the school’s curriculum and courses.

NorQuest’s new Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation Hospitality Institute will train and certify hospitality workers – as much for hotels and restaurants as for the Rogers Place Arena. Part of the Oilers Foundation contribution will be hundreds of annual student bursaries to offset tuition fees.

NorQuest’s Aboriginal Construction Career Centre is soon to be officially launched.

To scroll through NorQuest’s course offerings is to find practical training course after practical course – online, part-time, full-time. Many courses are already at capacity for 2015 winter and spring sessions.

“I sat in on classes at NorQuest,” says donor Singhmar, while deciding where to place his family’s philanthropic dollars. “I was so impressed with the practical help and training being given to people who really need the help – aboriginal, immigrants, low-income earners determined to improve their lives. The morale was great, the students cheerful, the desire to learn so tangible. NorQuest is giving them the skills to get better jobs, to go and be good taxpayers.”

The same great question looms over all education and health spending in Alberta and across Canada, right down to the NorQuest level.

As this column has aptly demonstrated, training less-than-advantaged Albertans to fill a healthy portion of the ever-growing blue/white-collar skill shortage is a slam-dunk, as obvious as the nose on your face.

But 65% of Alberta’s current $40 billion operational budget (not including capital spending) already goes to health and education.

Where are the extra funding dollars to come from? Especially when the golden goose (the oil and gas sector) has caught a bad cold.

That’s a question for another day.


Of NorQuest College’s 10,000 full and part-time students, 40% are in community health care/aide programs, 40% in academic upgrading and English as a Second Language, 20% in business and other medical service programs.

Number of full-time equivalent students: 3,600.

2000 graduates each year.

Of 1,508 Health Care Aide graduates in Alberta in 2011, 77% were from NorQuest.

Percentage of students born outside Canada, 60%

Percentage of aboriginal students, 11%

Number of students with (self-identified) disabilities, 449

 Graham Hick