Big projects on campus

Alberta's colleges are growing to meet demand for tomorrow's workforce

All across the province, colleges are stepping up to help industry and government mitigate an expected shortage of 100,000 workers over the next decade.

Construction projects totalling about $1.2 billion are underway or planned at more than a dozen Alberta colleges by the end of the decade, according to the provincial government.

An innovative $62-million project at Olds College illustrates how serious colleges are about producing work-ready graduates quickly.

The project is called the Community Learning Campus. Created by Olds College and the Chinook Edge School Division, the Community Learning Campus will provide students who want to remain in the region with the same access to higher education that's available in larger cities. High school and post-secondary education will be combined on one campus. As well, the Community Learning Campus will serve as a hub for distance education throughout the entire Mountain View district in south-central Alberta.

Losing younger workers is a serious issue in rural areas. It's especially important for the province's oil and gas industry, which relies on the people and places outside of major urban centres to work in and service its facilities.

Hiring locally typically results in a higher employee-retention rate. And there aren't additional costs, such as moving and housing allowances.

"I've been in this business 25 years and this is the most incredible thing I've ever run into," Robert Mackenzie, chief facilities and planning officer at Olds College, says of the project.

The Community Learning Campus will also allow Olds College to graduate students quicker than through the trad-itional curriculum. Although the high school won't be ready for move-in until 2009, curriculum changes have already been made. In fact, the high school recently graduated several students with first-year welding skills.

To accommodate close to 500 additional students while leaving room for increased enrolment in the college itself, Olds College is adding:

  • A combined high school/health and wellness facility is under construction.
  • An "E-Learning Core" and bus maintenance facility will open this fall.
  • A fine arts and multimedia building is planned.

Shunda Consulting and Construction Management Ltd. of Red Deer is the construction manager for all projects.

Admittedly, mixing teenagers with the post-secondary set poses design challenges. Parents want their high school students to have a secure environment. The college wants to continue to provide a true college experience.

"There's a lot of openness, and we've paid attention to the security and people-flow issues," says Mackenzie. "But we didn't want to duplicate things and have them exist in both worlds unless we absolutely had to."

Students will share one library and the fitness facility. The fine arts and multimedia building and E-Learning Core also will be shared. High school students will take some classes in the college's existing shop space.

By sharing space, the school division and college were able to stretch their infrastructure dollars further, helping the institutions deal with rising construction costs.

GROWING PAINS

Growth is another factor fuelling Alberta's college construction boom.

The post-secondary institution of choice for 11,000 full- and part-time students, Bow Valley College in Calgary, is running at full capacity.

"Quite simply, the college has been out of space for a number of years and has looked at a number of different options and sites for redevelopment to address the growth in student enrolment," says Gary Duke, project director at Bow Valley College.

Ultimately, the decision was made to reinvest in the college's downtown site. A $175-million renovation and expansion project will assist the college in its goal of doubling enrolment capacity by 2020.

The project will be carried out in two phases. Phase I, the renovation and expansion of the existing main campus facility, is underway.

"We are basically renovating every square foot of the building," Duke says of Phase I. Each floor will be reconfigured to improve efficiency and make room for more students.

On the ground level, existing open plazas will be reworked to allow for additional usable space. Additionally, the base of the building will be extended toward the property lines. The renovations will give Bow Valley College an extra 70,000 sq. ft of space.

The renovation also includes improving the energy efficiency of the aging building by installing new windows and upgrading mechanical systems. Structural upgrades will also take place. Stuart Olson Inc. is the construction manager for the job.

QUIET, PLEASE

Undertaking such a massive renovation project amid throngs of students isn't easy. Duke says Stuart Olson has adapted its work schedule to the students. It enforces quiet periods and carries out the noisiest work after 2 p.m. and on weekends. Weekly updates are also posted on the college's website.

In Phase 2, slated to begin in 2008, the Provincial Courts of Alberta building across the street from the college will be demolished. Bow Valley College will add approximately 204,000 sq. ft of space to its campus with a second building. There will also be underground parking.

Bow Valley College isn't the only college expanding.

It should come as no surprise that Keyano College needs to grow. After all, the school is located in Fort McMurray, one of the nation's fastest growing cities and the epicentre of the lucrative oilsands industry. It's an industry that relies on Keyano to provide skilled labour for trades such as welding and heavy equipment maintenance.

Keyano College president Jim Foote believes that the pressures of business and industry on the college will steadily increase over the next decade.

"Look at the nature of the oilsands business-with these huge plants with a tremendous amount of money invested in them," he notes. "You have to make sure that the people that operate them at every level know what they're doing."

Traditionally, tradespeople have received most of their hands-on experience on the job, learning from mentors after completing the theoretical training portion in college. But with baby boomers dropping out of the workforce in ever-increasing numbers, mentors won't be there to provide training. That means educational institutions will have to fill the gap.

Keyano is preparing to provide more hands-on experience to more students with a proposed Oil Sands Trades and Technology Centre that could cost as much as $110 million. Now in the design phase, the building will be approximately 323,000 sq. ft. It will house all of the college's apprenticeship training as well as existing and new technology programs.

The building will include dedicated, specialized spaces for practical training.

"If you're training somebody as a heavy duty technician to repair large engines and transmissions, and you've got this big engine taken apart, you can't suddenly put it back together again and have another activity take place," says Foote, underlining the cost and challenges inherent in undertaking practical training on a large scale.

Keyano is keenly aware of rising construction costs. According to Foote, managing costs is a matter of careful planning and quick execution. The facility is expected to open in 2010.


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