Portage la Prairie pleased relocation of aircraft program grounded for at least 5 years
Positions saved, but Portage's mayor says win doesn't make up for hundreds of job losses
A Manitoba city battered by the pending loss of hundreds of public sector jobs is grateful that a college's plans to relocate more positions has been grounded, but the threat still hangs over the community.
Red River College Polytechnic's apprenticeship aircraft maintenance journeyman program won't take off from just outside Portage la Prairie to Winnipeg this fall, as planned earlier.
The program to train aircraft mechanics, which attracts students from across the country, will remain in the Portage la Prairie area after the college signed a new five-year lease on its Southport campus.
In addition to renewing the lease, RRC Polytech is launching a review of the program to ensure it meets the industry's current and future needs. Employers, communities, students, staff and faculty will be consulted, in a process the polytechnic says could lead to the program staying put beyond the five-year term of the lease.
The review should illustrate the program's value in its current location, said Manitoba Government and Employees' Union president Kyle Ross, whose union represents staff at the campus.
"We're happy to hear that they've delayed moving this, but really, we'd like to see them walk away from this idea," said Ross, adding he doesn't want the Portage la Prairie region to face another economic blow.
The city will lose more than 450 jobs if the provincial government follows through on closing several workplaces, says an economic impact study by the Georgetown Newbury Group that was commissioned by the MGEU and published earlier this year.
Job losses wide-ranging
The losses include last month's closure of the Agassiz Youth Centre and next year's shuttering of the Manitoba Developmental Centre, as well as earlier job cuts at the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba's Compass Residential Program and the real estate division of the Crown Lands Property Agency.
The province has worked with staff and the union to find jobs at other sites for the staff affected by the closures.
The impact of the aircraft maintenance program and its eight jobs is small in comparison to some other public sector workplaces in the city, such as the 370 jobs at the developmental centre that housed adults with disabilities, but it signals a continued retreat of good, well-paying jobs, Portage la Prairie Mayor Irvine Ferris said.
"When I talk to rural mayors and reeves from across the province, there seems to be a trend of an exodus of government jobs from the rural areas of the province to the city of Winnipeg and we're very concerned about that," he said.
"Rural Manitoba struggles to attract people and services and so having some of these jobs goes a long way to a more stable rural economy."
Ferris said Portage a Prairie, about 85 kilometres west of Winnipeg, has been actively supporting economic development for years, with a $600-million pea processing plant built by Roquette bringing 120 jobs and a $460-million expansion of Simplot's potato processing facility adding almost 80 positions.
Those 200 new jobs help, but they don't make up for what has disappeared, he said.
"The math just isn't working for our community," Ferris said.
In an agricultural economy subject to the whims of the weather, provincial jobs "really serve as a backstop" for Portage la Prairie, Ferris said.
The aircraft maintenance program getting a longer runway in Southport, just outside Portage la Prairie, represents more than the jobs, with many students living in the city and contributing to its economy, said Ross.
"The people that take this program, they spend money in the town of Portage. They go shopping at the shopping centres, they go to the restaurants, they go to the bars," Ross said. "They're part of the town."
He says the school wanted to relocate the program without properly evaluating the logistics of the move.
Students stay in affordable housing on-site, which is likely cheaper than options elsewhere, he said.
RRC Polytech wanted to move the program alongside similar aviation and aerospace programming in Winnipeg, but held off "based on the complexity of the program needs and rising construction costs and supply chain challenges," the college's update to the community says.
Ferris said he's been in regular talks with the government to try to save community jobs, including a potential alternative use for the developmental centre, but the discussions haven't been successful.
Optimism in Portage from the building of agricultural processing centres has given way to uncertainty, he said.
The city's population shrank slightly — fewer than 50 people — in the 2021 census compared to five years earlier.
"I think business people are trying to figure out what the new scenario looks like, because a lot of investments were made based upon new jobs coming, growth," Ferris said.
"This will probably cause people to pause."
- We initially reported that the Agassiz Youth Centre closed this month. In fact, it closed last month.Aug 16, 2022 7:58 AM CT