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GED Graduating Class of 2013

Adult learning surges in Miramichi

Miramichi’s economy has been hit hard over the past decade. Mills closed and shuttered. One is being demolished to make way for the promised boom of another industry that will not materialize. Men and women out of work. Families separated as spouses travel out west for work. Some make the move permanent. Others live a life of commuting by plane every three weeks.

The Miramichi Leader will look at the effects the mill closures have had on the Miramichi and Northumberland County in a series called After the Mills. Every aspect of life in this region has been impacted. Today we look at how the mill closures have sent many adults back to the classroom for training.

MIRAMICHI – There’s a perceptible shift happening in how Miramichiers approach the job market. No more passive wishing for the industrial heyday of the mill era – they’re proactively shaping their destiny through adult education.

“Since 2008, there has been a 30 per cent increase in the number of students in our classes,” said Ann Morrissy, Miramichi-based regional adult learning consultant with the Post Secondary Education, Training and Labour Department.

Miramichi Adult Learning had 333 local students in its classes this year, the highest number ever in its two decades of existence.

“While there’s declining enrolment in the public school system, our classes are increasing,” she noted.

Mill jobs that seemed like such promising opportunities to young people two or three decades ago trapped many Miramichiers in a false sense of security that hard work alone was the ticket to success.

In recent years the closure of the mills they counted on for employment, combined with a crushing economic recession, cast a dark shadow over future prospects for Miramichi’s working-age population.

Many had dropped out of school as soon as they were old enough for the mills to hire them. Not everyone got a well-paying mill job but many now in their 40s, 50s and 60s just didn’t see a need to finish school at the time. There was plenty of work in the woods, in trucking and service industries – and no indication it would ever be otherwise.

Many were thriving in a bustling industrial region where a high school diploma wasn’t required, just a local work force with a strong work ethic.

But within a generation, that all changed.

There’s still a local workforce and a strong work ethic on the Miramichi, but very few jobs available for those without a post-secondary diploma, let alone a high school one.

Morrissy isn’t sure whether the mill closures and recession are the only reasons more adults are opting to complete and further their educations, but she’s sure they’re major factors.

“Many of them had a good living, a good income, and it was devastating to them to lose their job, especially when they were older and didn’t have a high school diploma to fall back on.

“Some have worked for 20, 30, 35 years, then were laid off and have had to return to school in their 40s, 50s and 60s plus,” she said.

“And the younger people were also devastated because they had to endure all the struggles that go with the recession, such as losing a job, financial, emotional …”

But she’s amazed and inspired by the resiliency she sees in the Miramichiers who, rejecting despair and dependence, turn to education to help themselves get out from under unemployment’s shadow.

She said that resilience is a common thread that runs through students in the 25 adult education classes across Northumberland County, from Boiestown to Baie-Sainte-Anne.

The mill closures and economic challenges of northern New Brunswick have “forced them to try harder, dig deeper and to find the strength they never knew they had,” she said.

“I see in my job every day that they are not letting anything hold them back.

“I am impressed to see how they are moving on … to getting an education so they can launch a new career.”

She proudly notes almost all of this year’s 39 GED graduates are proceeding on to post-secondary courses.

“That wouldn’t have been the case 10 years ago,” she said.

Miramichi Adult Learning offers free academic upgrading through full-time courses or night school classes throughout Northumberland County.

Since the mill closures, Morrissy said, there’s been a surge not only in participants just doing what they need to do for employment reasons, but taking initiative to change the script of their lives.

“I’ve noticed there is a shift happening,” she said.

“While the recession and the mill closures forced adults to return to school … after they start class, something shifts in them. It isn’t long before they figure out there is something else happening,” she said.

“There is a spark, a new purpose. They see their strengths and believe in themselves.

“I want to feed that spark!” she said, her eyes lighting up with enthusiasm.

Students have told her they’ve found “education is the key” and she said it’s like a light bulb going on for them – the realization they have the power to pilot their own way through economic challenges on the wings of education.

“They’re all learning something about themselves they may never have discovered if they weren’t forced to,” she said.

And they’re passing a message on to their children and grandchildren – a message their own generation may not have heard or heeded: That education is necessary and valuable, you’re never too old to learn and you are worth the time and effort.

“They appreciate what education means more than high school graduates,” she said. “They’ve always felt empty all their lives because they didn’t have a high school education. I think that’s why they cry at graduation.”

“The better educated we are, the wealthier, healthier and happier we will become, so research says,” Morrissy noted, adding she sees more and more Miramichiers realizing this as well.

“The recession may have cast a dark cloud over Miramichi, but through education we can see a spark of hope, and hopefully over time it will light up our community again,” she said.

Miramichi Leader
Fri Jun 24 2011
Page: A1
Section: Main
Byline: Charlene MacKenzie