|Situated along the Gulf of St. Lawrence in eastern Canada, the province of New Brunswick is blessed with forests of spruce and balsam fir, hillsides rich in copper, lead, and zinc, and offshore waters filled with herring, cod, and crabs. For generations, residents made their livings in lumber mills, mines, and fishing boats, collecting and processing the natural wealth. But by the early 1990s, the provincial government’s economic planners realized that the traditional way of life was no longer sustainable and, unless the economy changed quickly, New Brunswick faced a bleak future.
As the province struggled to automate, it had to shed jobs. Its old resource-based industries could no longer compete in the new world economy. "We already had 15 percent unemployment," says Leonard Weeks, an HR professional who is New Brunswick’s manager in charge of knowledge industry and innovation. "And our projections showed that during the 1990s, we were going to lose at least 10,000 more industrial jobs, nearly 5 percent of the province’s workforce." Beyond that, the lack of opportunity in the region was causing young educated people to move to other parts of Canada and the United States.
New Brunswick officials knew they had to find a way to reverse the unemployment tide before it turned into a tsunami that might wreck the province’s already destabilized economy. It was the sort of dire plight that demanded a radical solution.
Fortunately, the province’s political leader at the time, Premier Frank McKenna, was a man with an unconventional style of thinking. "Chairman Frank," as the Canadian newsmagazine Maclean’s once labeled him, liked to think of himself not as a politician in charge of one of Canada’s poorest provinces but as a business executive running a big, diversified corporation. He was fond of applying ideas that worked in business to government—total quality management, performance benchmarking, and customer-service orientation.
Like a turnaround expert trying to revive a failing company, McKenna methodically assessed New Brunswick’s prospects. The existing industries weren’t going to add new workers. And the province’s small size—at 750,000, its population was roughly a third that of the city of Toronto—and relatively remote location made it an unlikely choice for new manufacturing operations.
Instead, McKenna decided that the province had to reposition itself. It must develop a new, growing industry where it could quickly become a leader in a field in which initiative mattered more than location. He zeroed in on the then nascent field of information technology and multimedia. With companies increasingly relying on computer networks and the Internet to manage their far-flung global operations, it seemed like a promising bet.
Additionally, the strategy enabled New Brunswick to leverage a significant asset—1,800 miles of fiber-optic cable that its phone company, NBTel, already had installed. The project was an effort to create a digital phone network, and cost $50 million. That same infrastructure could be harnessed for high-speed data transmission, giving the rural province enough bandwidth to compete with large metropolitan workers.
But McKenna’s vision contained one big if. To transform New Brunswick’s economy, the province needed plenty of technologically skilled, intellectually creative people. That was no easy task in a place where the populace was more accustomed to fishing lines than keyboards, the youngest and brightest had fled, and the older workers feared new technology and change. At its core, New Brunswick’s economic crisis was an HR problem that required an inspired HR approach. Weeks posed this question: "As we’re building the technology base, why not use it to develop our workers?" The workforce could serve essentially as a laboratory subject for the information products that New Brunswick sought to develop.
Today, a decade later, the success of the HR strategy is obvious. Largely because of its information-technology thrust, New Brunswick’s unemployment rate has dropped 5 percent. Twenty thousand people are now employed in the new sector, and the province’s training infrastructure produces more than 2,500 workers skilled in software development and content creation each year.
With IT employment growing at a 30 percent annual rate, workers now are moving into the province to find jobs. Both New Brunswick’s economy and its image have undergone a dramatic shift. The former rural rust belt is now considered a global leader in producing software and content for distance learning and online corporate training. Its information products are used by an estimated 100,000 companies worldwide.
In March, IBM hired two New Brunswick companies, Advanced Training & Services and CertifyOnline.com, to train Web developers throughout the world. Paul McErlean, IBM Canada’s vice president of software, says the technology giant’s decision was influenced largely by "the amazing amount of skills" possessed by the province’s technology-savvy workers. The workers also produce much of the content for SmartForce, an Irish company that is the world’s biggest provider of online learning services to businesses.
HR’s leadership helped New Brunswick to reinvent itself. For its outstanding turnaround, the province wins the Workforce Optimas Award for Innovation.
Creating a high-tech training infrastructure
New Brunswick turned to one of its existing assets—NBTel’s fiber-optic network. "Our telecommunications infrastructure was second to none in the world," he notes. "Literally, you could get a digital line in your hunting camp." From 1991 to 1994, the government set up a dozen tele-education centers across the province. The centers were equipped with computers, video-conferencing equipment, and digital "white board" technology that displayed an instructor’s writing and diagrams to students in a classroom hundreds of miles away. Over the next five years, the province increased the number of centers to 100. Today, the TeleEducation NB program offers tens of thousands of course offerings, in at least five languages.
When the program was in its infancy in the early 1990s, instructional software and course content for retraining workers was virtually nonexistent. As a result, the province was forced to create its own offerings. At New Brunswick Community College-Miramichi, the teaching staff began developing classes, and eventually the school established the Distributed Learning Centre, which has created two dozen technology-based courses. Since there was an obvious market for courseware, the college came up with an ingenious solution. Why not train students how to create it? Funded with $15 million in grants from the province, Canada’s federal government, and some private-sector partners, the college in 1994 became the first institution in North America to establish a program devoted specifically to educational technology. The Multimedia Learning Technology Center of Excellence offered instruction in virtual reality, game design, computer animation, and other technical skills. It also taught students how to use those skills to design online courses.
The learning center’s two-year program incorporated other novel tactics. There are no tests or exams. Instead, in order to graduate, students show competency by actually producing a viable product. They are divided into entrepreneurial teams, which are legally incorporated as companies, and assigned to work with private-sector clients, who provide guidance and are committed to purchasing the finished product. There was a shift from watching to learning by doing.
To help further nurture that transformation, in 1996 New Brunswick started Miratech, a center four miles from the NBCC-M campus that serves as an incubator for technology start-ups. Within two years, the center housed 12 new information-technology companies, many of them run by graduates of NBCC-M’s educational-technology program. Today, a typical Miratech tenant is HLS Multimedia, which employs more than a dozen animators to produce educational CD-ROMs for a California-based distributor.
Helping workers adjust to a new work culture
Additionally, a worker studying to switch careers faced very different challenges than the typical college student. The "re-careering" workers generally were 15 to 20 years older and had families, mortgages, and other obligations that their 20-something classmates didn’t have to worry about. They had to learn how to keep up with those responsibilities, while striving to succeed in a demanding field where the workday seldom ends at 5 p.m. and travel is often essential. "When you’re more mature, it’s not so easy to go off for three months to work on a project in India just because there’s a business opportunity there," Lobban says.
One of the keys to helping workers make such a transition, Lobban says, is helping them to understand themselves. NBCC-M makes extensive use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and other testing tools, so that re-careering workers can get an objective picture of their strengths, liabilities, and inclinations. "We’re even starting to test potential students," she says.
Another important part is getting continuous feedback from the retraining workers about what sort of extracurricular help they need. Lobban meets each month with student representatives to assess NBCC-M’s programs and services and how they might be improved. As a result of those discussions, the school has added services specifically tailored to re-careering workers’ needs—for example, programs on how to cope with stress and manage debt load. "We started a dinner-theater outing," she says. "For the more mature retraining students, that was a more comfortable atmosphere than, say, a pub night. And it still gave them the opportunity to network with other entrepreneurs and develop the sort of relationships that are crucial when they go out into the business world."
Achieving fuller participation in the retraining process
For that reason, in the mid 1990s, New Brunswick installed Internet access in more than 230 schools, recreation centers, and other gathering places in small towns throughout the province. The Community Access program offered free e-mail accounts, Internet access, and computers and printers, as well as basic instruction on using those resources, to anyone who walked in the door. The idea was to give people who hadn’t been exposed to computing a chance to become comfortable with the technology—and eventually, to use it for retraining.
But program director Gary Wood didn’t leave any of that up to chance. The key to having the centers work as a retraining tool, he says, "is to make people feel as if they’re in control of the program, that they own it." Before opening a center, Wood and his staff set up a meeting with town residents, to do what he calls "community asset mapping."
"Basically, we would find out what skills, interests, and other assets the people had, and get them to talk about how they might utilize those assets with the help of computers," he says. (In farming communities, for example, Wood discovered an interest in developing bookkeeping and management skills related to agriculture.)
Additionally, Wood came up with the idea of hiring unemployed or under-employed workers who were eligible for government assistance and teaching them to help other residents learn to use the technology. "Eighty-three percent of them went on to get jobs elsewhere after working for six months at a center."
As a result, the centers were immediately popular. In the working-class village of Saint-François, for example, a third of the area’s 1,500 people came out to give the Internet a try, and the 34 computer stations at a local school and public library were tied up 60 percent of the time. In the first year, more than 250 people took online courses.
In another area, Sussex Corner, Angie McNabb, an out-of-work bookkeeper and mother of two, tried the Internet for the first time and within a few months was designing Web sites. She eventually landed a job with the center as a computer instructor, and went on to start her own bakery business, Angelina’s Fine Desserts, utilizing cheesecake recipes she collected on the Internet. Her success story is far more humble than that of, say, the New Brunswick start-up companies that garnered lucrative contracts from IBM. But it’s a sign that New Brunswick’s HR efforts are reaching every level of the workforce. About half of the 20,000 new technology jobs have been filled by workers who were out of work or under-employed in low-wage or part-time jobs.
Sustaining the progress
New Brunswick’s HR high-tech training strategy actually has spawned an entire new industry. There are now more Internet users throughout the world who are taking courses created in New Brunswick than there are people living in the province. That may be the surest sign that New Brunswick’s innovative approach is catching on.
Workforce, July 2002, pp. 46-50 -- Subscribe Now!
Recent Articles by Patrick Kiger
LoadingView All Job Listings