Rapid economic development created need for a new approach to post-secondary education
In 1962, Bill Riches was a 26-year-old communication electrician with Alberta Government Telephones (AGT) in Edmonton. He knew the position well, having come to it from a job at Canadian Telephone Supplies in Vancouver. So when he and his colleagues were sent to NAIT to begin an apprenticeship program for the job he was already doing, he was a bit miffed.
Previously, the company had been conducting a four-year apprenticeship program on its own for employees. “That’s what I thought I was doing,” he says. “I didn’t know what I had to go to school for.”
The change had actually been set in motion years earlier. In 1959, the Government of Alberta announced plans to build a new vocational training institute in Edmonton.
The timing was perfect: the province’s prosperity was growing with the development and export of its natural resources, Edmonton’s population was on track to nearly double over the decade, and new construction was transforming the capital’s skyline from brick walk-ups to the cosmopolitan look of a city with a busy future in store.
With this growth came soaring demands for more technically educated workers than companies themselves could produce – a labour gap NAIT aimed to fill. At that point, the only two technical training centres in Canada were the Ryerson Institute of Technology in Toronto and the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art (now SAIT) in Calgary.
Taking advantage of a $400-million federal fund introduced to stimulate the development of such training institutions, a team of visionaries led by NAIT’s first principal, Jack Mitchell, began the daunting task of building a post-secondary institute from the ground up.
Learning by doing
In 1962, after choosing 10.5 hectares (26 acres) near Edmonton’s municipal airport as the site of the $16-million school, the group began assembling staff to coordinate programming and schedules, and to find qualified instructors.
One of the first hired was Dr. Krishan Kamra. As department head of Laboratory Sciences, he could see the challenge ahead.
“There was tremendous pent-up demand from industry for Canada to create a new workforce,” he says. Particularly for northern Alberta, “NAIT was put in charge of inventing a person who had not existed before.”
Even defining technician proved to be a challenge.
“At my job interview, [personnel officer] Bill Hobden asked me, ‘What is a technician?’” says Kamra, who was appointed NAIT’s first director of instruction in 1966. “I flubbed the answer. I didn’t know.”
“There was tremendous pent-up demand to create a new workforce.”
The industries driving Alberta’s burgeoning economy knew what they were looking for, however.
Hospitals needed a proper training ground for their medical laboratory technologists and dentists wanted someone other than themselves to train dental technicians and dental mechanics (known today as denturists). Communications companies AGT and EdTel demanded a local apprenticeship program.
And industry leaders from fields such as engineering, building construction, banking, business communications and photography worked alongside NAIT’s administrators to ensure classroom curriculum aligned with the needs of the workplace.
The challenge ultimately fell to the instructors, few of whom had formal training as teachers and little or no curriculum developed. But they did have knowledge and experience that went far beyond words in a textbook.
“We had exceptionally good instructors,” says Kamra. “Most of them were in their 30s, had supervisory or similar attributes, and were competitive in their fields.”
And they were able to figure out the role as they went, he adds. “There was a lot of learning by doing.”
Fulfilling a need
Bob Busse, an early instructor in the apprenticeship program, sums up his classroom experience as extremely rewarding. “We gave the kids who came here a future they didn’t have before.”
Combining that teaching talent with state-of-the-art equipment, NAIT attracted students from across Western Canada and, by 1965, was already expanding to include the $2.5-million Tower Building. Early projections of 10,000 students and 300 instructors before the end of the decade seemed realistic.
“This institute fulfills one of the greatest needs in our society,” said Premier Ernest Manning at NAIT’s official opening. “There have been complaints that technology is taking away jobs. It is not technology [that causes the problem], but the failure of society to keep pace with the training necessary to prepare young people to fulfill useful functions.”
Then, as now, NAIT’s relevance to the economy put it at the top of Canada’s polytechnic institutes. “The reason we were created has remained our raison d’être,” says current president and CEO Dr. Glenn Feltham. “We are providing skilled workers. We have been absolutely true to ourselves.”
Eventually, Bill Riches figured out for himself the value of NAIT. After graduating as a communication electrician, he worked in the field for eight years. Later, he returned to NAIT – to become a baker.
“It was a good experience. Very good,” he says. “The difference for me was, before I went to NAIT, I knew how to do all the things for my job. After I went, I knew why. I knew the theory.”