Higher education needed in Maple Ridge for high-tech, high-paying jobs

Higher education needed in Maple Ridge for high-tech, high-paying jobs

Having a post-secondary school and growing talent locally would help.

This is the fourth installment in a series on innovation and emerging cities.

If you want to compete in the virtual, global space, you need the top talent.

Oliver Perez, founder of Multitrends ITNet Services, based out of Maple Meadows Business Park in Maple Ridge, realizes this every time he looks to hire in his growing virtual company that offers cloud computing, server and information technology support.

But intelligent, competent computer science graduates don’t grow on trees, so Perez is not only competing with the rest of Metro Vancouver, but the rest of the world for IT experts who can help his company.

Having a post-secondary school in Maple Ridge and growing some of that talent locally would help.

Educating people locally just makes it easier to recruit a student via part-time or summer work, said Perez.

“Having a local campus would help. I think the communication and the value of our local businesses would be more than if we went up to UBC and said, ‘Hey, I’m in Maple Ridge and I need these people. I think there would be some advantage to having a local campus.’”

For his sector, four-year computer science degree is now only a starting point for in the information technology field. The graduate then can pick her or his specialization, such as software or networking, “And that’s usually done while working.

“We’re looking for those people right out of school … and then build them up as they go.”

Perez said someone attending school here is more likely to be connected to a local employer, who will hire that student during the summer or for practicums, making it more likely that student will stay around when she or he graduates.

“It’s about retention, as well. We’re trying to retain these investments we have in the staff.”

But the establishment of a permanent satellite university or college campus, even some locally offered first-year courses to allow kids an easier jump into university, has struggled to get going in Maple Ridge.

A task force of educators and politicians has tried to start the process for several years after the departure of Douglas College from Thomas Haney secondary more than a decade ago.

Coun. Bob Masse is on the task force and notes that SFU is willing to allocate a portion of its student funding for a first-year program in Maple Ridge. But space and a location have yet to be found.

“It’s a huge hole. The absence of post-secondary is a big gap,” Masse said.

At one point he favoured the three acres on Selkirk Avenue and 227th Street. But the city sold that and it’s now being developed.

The civic and cultural centre planned for Memorial Peace Park, which was scratched from the city’s recreation renovation list by a majority of council last year, would have allowed a small space for the SFU program, Masse noted.

Perez has a few ideas for possible locations, such as the vacant lot just east of the Haney Place Mall bus loop.

“That would be a perfect place to put a campus.”

Bus connections, soon to be bolstered by a B-Line running directly to Coquitlam SkyTrain, would allow cheap transportation for students.

But establishing a post-secondary school in Maple Ridge requires a collective, community effort.

Council and staff have to make a place for post-secondary a priority and recognize that in their long-term plans.

“Is our community willing to contribute to that?” Perez asked.

Will people pay to create a campus that would keep kids at school and spare them the costs of commuting and living away from home?

“We have to get out of our silos and work together. That’s how we’re going to grow,” Perez said.

Maple Ridge’s environment, its parks and rivers and forests, all could be part of the recipe for attracting a school and students, he added.

“All those factors help us grow.”

City economic development manager Lino Siracusa describes the lack of post-secondary training in Maple Ridge as a “void.”

With no higher education options, kids have to get on the bus or into their expensive-to-operate cars and join the Metro Vancouver commuter mayhem daily to get to classes. That costs them money and the support of their families as they hit the books.

If students actually move out of Maple Ridge altogether to be closer to school, many never come back.

What’s important is to recognize that education and getting people together, with the opportunity to talk and learn, “spurs innovation,” Siracusa said.

“In today’s society, we’re seeing that education and innovation go hand in hand.”

Successful societies around the world have a higher education, Siracusa said.

Schools in urban settings are plentiful, he added, such as SFU’s downtown Vancouver location, or SFU’s campus at Central City mall in Surrey.

“Just having that post-secondary institution located in the community becomes an opportunity to have more kids follow post-secondary education, pursue a fruitful career in the future.”

Siracusa notes that compared to almost every other city in the Lower Mainland, Maple Ridge is bereft of higher education.

There’s been interest, he said.

“But there’s never been the ability to put that together.”

The new provincial government may be more willing to do that, he added.

From an economic development perspective, post secondary should go in the downtown. Transit, the library, leisure and youth centre, little coffee shops, “It’s all here. To me, the town centre would be the logical location,” Siracusa said.

But if a school wanted to build a campus anywhere in Maple Ridge, the city would support that, as well.

A campus could be integrated into a future condo development or shopping centre as the retail sector evolves, he added.

“What would a redevelopment of one of our downtown malls look like with the potential of post-secondary education in there?”

The city just has to inform the universities that it’s still interested.

Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read cited the North Fraser Labour Market Information Research Study in 2014 that found Misison-Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows had only 65 per cent of high school kids go to college or university within three years, compared to rates of 78 per cent to 92 per cent in other parts of Metro Vancouver.

With the civic and cultural centre no longer an option for post secondary, the search continues for a location. It’s possible, but not certain, there could be space in the city’s business tower for a SFU first-year program, Read added.

The goal is to create something unique in Maple Ridge.

“I think we want to be able to create something in Maple Ridge that’s going to be a destination point for other people, too. What can we bring to Maple Ridge that would be good for the entire region … for post-secondary education.”

Read said affordability and housing crisis affects people’s ability to get an education.

“Transit is a problem. It’s certainly a barrier in some cases. I think with the affordability crisis, it’s getting even harder for kids who may live with their parents in Maple Ridge to commute all the way to UBC every day. Getting an apartment is really difficult because of the affordability challenges.

“We need a space. That’s something that all levels of government need to look at.”