We’re calling it the new Vancouver Island — this increasingly cosmopolitan region of educated working professionals drawn to a West Coast lifestyle at an affordable price.
And a major catalyst for the changing face of our community is Vancouver Island University.
Today Black Press concludes its look at VIU’s impact on the social and economic landscape of the community with a closer look at how it is serving its original demographic — the towns and small cities north of the Malahat.
PART III: The Domestic Student
Quick now, what is the biggest economic driver north of the Malahat?
Logging? Tourism? Marijuana?
According to Nanaimo Economic Development Commission chairman Andre Sullivan, the answer — on the Island’s central east coast, at least — may surprise you.
“I would say (Vancouver Island) University. In addition to being an employer it is also a driver in terms of the people it brings to town — whether they stay here for one year or a lifetime,” Sullivan said. “It has a huge economic impact. We don’t recognize ourselves as a university town, but we are. There is not a single thing they are doing that does not benefit the economy.”
You can start with the VIU job force, which the university pegs at 2,300 people, including campuses in Cowichan, Nanaimo, Parksville and Powell River. Contrast that with industrial giants like the Crofton and Harmac pulp mills, which have nearly 600 and 300 employees, respectively.
Sullivan said VIU staff, students and visitors are the top customers for the Nanaimo Airport, the hotels, clubs and restaurants in the city’s downtown, and its sports and recreation facilities.
But the university’s impact goes beyond the jobs it creates and the shopping dollars it provides. It has important social repercussions as well.
By its very nature, VIU is generating a steady stream of motivated up-and-comers who may fall in love with the central island and the opportunities it provides. At one end of the socio-economic scale are people who are highly-skilled and driven, with an entrepreneurial spirit that can inject fresh social and economic life into the community. At the other end of that scale, the university provides skills and opportunities for young adults and less-educated mature students wanting to get ahead in life.
It’s no secret the university focuses much of its attention reaching out to international and Aboriginal students. One reason is there simply aren’t as many domestic students to draw from any more. You’ve read the headlines: the public school system up and down Vancouver Island is consolidating by closing schools. The echo of the baby boom has long passed and the number of kids graduating from Island high schools has dwindled.
Couple that with a mindset that still exists north of the Malahat that a post-secondary education isn’t essential to getting a good job.
“Our transition rates out of high school are low,” VIU president Ralph Nilson said. “There was a pattern of being able to not finish high school and go out to find work. That perception is still in place in some parts of our region.”
A major part of the university’s focus is changing that mindset, reaching out to high schools from Mill Bay to Port Hardy with a variety of accessible options that can awake young minds to employment possibilities or careers they can get passionate about.
Crofton’s Anouk Borris is one such student.
A 2013 Chemainus secondary grad, Borris was still exploring her options when she decided to speak with a counsellor at the Cowichan campus. She ended up in the forestry program because of her love for the outdoors, earned her two-year forestry diploma, and went right back to school to add a Bachelor of Science to her resume so she could pursue better opportunities in the field.
She came for the convenience. She stayed for the opportunity.
“I didn’t want to commit right away to a long program,” she said. “I wanted to be able to live at home for the first year.”
She discovered an easy transition, but also a good education, featuring small class size, easy access, a community environment and a nearby place to practice skills.
“It’s more affordable here,” she said. “People come here thinking of transferring, but end up staying.”
Nilson said VIU has great ties with Vancouver Island school districts through options like the dual credit program, which allows high school seniors to take first-year university courses or trades programs at no personal cost, and receive credits toward their high school graduation. Full-ride scholarships are also available to the top students in each high school on Vancouver Island.
But it is not just reaching out to the students. It is also reaching out to Vancouver Island communities to find out what kind of skilled employees they need.
“We are out there with business operations, out working with industry,” Nilson said. ”When we look at different programs for the trades, we are addressing needs in the community.”
VIU offers training in industries with high Island interest like fisheries, aquaculture, forestry and the service industry, as well as areas like building administrative capacity, understanding government, and education.
Business is a huge need across the board, Nilson said. A new program in coastal small town management and planning, and others in digital media and technology are also in demand.
“And health care. The demand is huge. Eighty-five per cent of all nurses we have end up working in the local area.”
VIU offers certification programs to people already employed in a number of Island fields and has invested in equipment it can take out into communities to offer training.
And it continues to offer Adult Basic Education programs for people to complete their high school equivalency.
“This is extremely important to these people and to this community,” Nilson said.
Sullivan said from the perspective of the business community, the programs are effective in providing skilled labour in a multitude of fields.
“VIU has been reasonably innovative in terms of understanding the local market and catering to the businesses,” he said. “Things like the MBA internship program have been great. That’s what creates a well-rounded community, having that diversity.”
Borris said things work from a student perspective as well. She is poised to start summer work as a forester for the municipality of North Cowichan and has had no trouble finding work every year through her university connections.
“I have been employed on the Island the whole time,” she said. “Everyone I know who was interested in getting a job in forestry got one.”
That is the type of results Nilson is looking for, and the question that powers VIU policy-making.
“Are we providing enough to meet demands of the economy and the demands of the workplace going forward?” he said,
The school’s roots go back nearly 50 years, when longstanding local trades school programs merged with a two-year old Malaspina College in 1971, with a mandate of providing post-secondary training for people living north of the Malahat. Degree opportunities arrived in 1989 and full university status — along with the Vancouver Island University name — in 2008.
Today, VIU is providing education and opportunity for the equivalent of 8,700 full-time students from across Vancouver Island and beyond. About 17,000 individuals are accessing its services, either in person or on line.
It isn’t always easy balancing a melange of academic programs, trades training and adult basic education opportunities for local towns and First Nations communities, while reaching out to the rest of the province and the world. It gets tougher when all that plays out on a canvas dedicated to a search for sustainable cultural, economic, environmental and social prosperity.
According to Nilson it’s about education and how learning can create a better life for everyone living north of the Malahat.
“We want to talk about the economic prosperity of the region. The local population receives the lion’s share of what we do. Ninety-eight per cent of our graduates are employed within two years.
“We are very bullish on our opportunities going forward.”
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