Nearly two dozen students from Grande Cache Community High School were in Edmonton on Monday and Tuesday for the Skills Canada national skilled trades and technology competition.
The students were guests of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters to observe and get hands-on experiences with different careers in the trades from construction and automotive to cosmetology and fashion.
“It’s going to get me an understanding of what I need to do, how I need to do it and where I can go from here,” said Grade 10 student Robert Gienger. “There’s a lot of people here that are helping me out get to where I want to be.”
Gienger takes classes in carpentry and welding at the high school. His family has a hobby farm that requires maintenance, and finding people to do that work can be difficult.
“It helps out with the things I do at the farm; building and fixing machinery,” he said. “It’s kind of a necessity in Grande Cache because there’s not a lot of that where I’m from.”
It was Christmas Eve 2015 when the Grande Cache coal mine shuttered its doors. More than 220 people lost their jobs at a time when the community was already trying to deal with about 250 layoffs at the company’s strip mine and coal-cleaning plant earlier that year. Skilled trade workers and their families went with them.
According to Statistics Canada, the population of Grande Cache dropped from 4,319 in 2011 to 3,571 in 2016, down 17 per cent.
The steelmaking coal mine, which isn’t included in the Provincial NDP’s coal phase-out, was one of the few major businesses in the area. Once the layoffs took effect, the town’s largest employer was the Grande Cache Institution, a federal medium-security prison.
The school’s principal Jacqueline Mines said they lost nearly 120 students in the closure.
“It was tough, without a doubt,” Mines told Global News.
But there is renewed hope. The plant has been sold to a new buyer and is set to re-open.
“We’re hoping they hire lots and we get lots of new students back,” Mines said.
She also hopes this trip to Edmonton to learn about the trades will encourage students to stick around in the town after they graduate.
“It’s an opportunity to see what they can do in life,” she said. “They’ll be so motivated to try this stuff and maybe build a career out of it.”
Gienger hopes to use the skills he’s learned to come back next year as a competitor and eventually, while also working as a Fish and Wildlife officer, make a career out of it.
“I want to learn these trades so I can (have) my own business in Grande Cache,” he said.
With files from The Canadian Press.