Slow start to training ex-Boise workers in International Falls

INTERNATIONAL FALLS – The Rainy River Community College sprawls across its campus here near the Canadian border, hallways with extremely shiny floors connecting  a maze of offices, labs and classrooms. “I want more than anything to provide training for people out of the paper mill,” said the school’s new dean, Elena Favela, a former basketball player who was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. “We’re trying to fill a need.”

Rainy River Community College Dean Elena Favela (MPR photo/Jennifer Vogel)

Doing that is proving difficult, at least so far. Since the Boise paper mill completed a round of layoffs on Oct. 1 that left 265 people without jobs, Favela has been trying various ways of providing training and assistance. The school hosted a resource fair in early October, but only a handful of people showed up. Last Saturday, the school was scheduled to begin a day-long safety training course for ex-mill employees who plan to work in mining. Though Favela was told by union representatives the training was in high demand, few signed up and she cancelled the first round.

The lack of participation is frustrating to Favela. “I’m not sure why,” she said. “Maybe it’s too soon.” She noted that many of those laid off have severance checks and unemployment benefits to rely on. It’s also hunting season here and Christmas isn’t long off. Perhaps a sense of urgency hasn’t set in yet.

“Maybe people are intimidated by the college,” Favela said. It’s not uncommon in a rugged, blue-collar city.

What the hundreds of former Boise workers decide to do, and where they decide to do it, will have a great impact on International Falls, a city of 6,400 on the Canadian border. The biggest fear is that they will be forced to move because there aren’t enough high-paying jobs here outside of the mill. Already, ex-workers have left for the mines on the Iron Range and the oil patch in North Dakota. Some commute back on weekends or every two weeks to see their families.

There is a real impetus to train people for jobs that can be done in International Falls, and to strengthen and diversify the city’s economy in the process. Money is available: Federal programs like Trade Adjustment Assistance pay for tuition and books. “There are skills gaps,” Favela said. “Beyond that, I think there are probably business gaps.” It’s important, she said, “to figure out what we are missing in the city that would make the residents here more comfortable and draw residents in from other areas.”

Rethinking a Company Town, a Ground Level project

Several months ago, after the Boise layoffs were announced, the local Minnesota Workforce Center, located on the community college campus, and the Northeast Higher Education District, a consortium of community colleges that includes Rainy River, conducted a survey to find out what jobs might interest ex-Boise workers. More than 100 people responded, expressing interest in fields as wide-ranging as wilderness and park management, law enforcement, welding, electrical maintenance, heating and cooling, business administration, commercial truck driving and engineering.

The survey, Favela said, showed that workers “had interests all over the place. As a result of some of the answers we got, we are bringing in training for welding. And we are partnering with one of our sister schools in the Northeast Higher Education District to bring in a security studies program for border patrol.” The welding classes will begin in early November and Favela said there was a good showing at an informational session. She expects well-attended classes.

As the dean of a small, remote community college with a limited budget, Favela has to weigh training workers for jobs that already exist against the possibility of training workers for jobs that have yet to come. “I would love to be ahead of the curve,” said Favela, who said the right program could capture community imagination and spur entrepreneurism.

Rainy River offers two-year associate degrees in arts and sciences, preparing some graduates to move on to four-year colleges, along with certificates for fields like home health and industrial repair. Some classes are offered by in-house professors and others via a new, state-of-the-art tele-learning system. With a student body of around 300, Rainy River is a small member of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

Late on a recent afternoon, in a mostly-empty hallway, Joe Chlebecek, an animated and popular professor of history and political science, estimated that out of his 164 students, approximately 10 are former Boise workers. “Some of them I recognize,” he said. They started their associate degrees years ago, but got hired at the mill for a good wage and stopped taking classes. Now they’re back. He said it’s a common pattern.

Favela is trying to draw more students and develop additional areas of study. Her staff is talking with the local hospital to see if there are new positions the school could train for. And she planned to visit a couple of aquaponic farms with a city council member to see if this type of indoor gardening and fish-raising is worth exploring in International Falls. “As educators in a community, you need to provide education on what else is out there,” said Favela, who at San Antonio College assisted workers displaced by Hurricane Katrina. “There may be some other cold city with a booming economy.”

But Rainy River can’t train for everything and some ex-mill employees have left for programs at other schools. Gary Hull teaches people to be electrical lineworkers in Baudette, about 60 miles west of International Falls, at a satellite of the Minnesota State Community and Technical College at Wadena. His current class of 27 includes four former Boise workers, who are some of his best students. “It’s kind of nice to have these students,” Hull said. “They are a little older. These students have been educated before. They’ve seen a little bit of the world.” He said that at least for some, skills learned at Boise translate nicely into lineworker training.

The program began in August and will finish in May. “It’s hard to say where they will end up going,” said Hull. He said his students will likely earn $30 or more per hour, many going to work for rural electric and municipal utilities in nearby states, he said. “They could go all over the United States.”

Favela said that after spending most of her life in cities, working in a small community like International Falls is “really different.” She joked, “It’s the same people on all the committees.” It can be tough to fill open teaching positions. “There is a lack of human resources up here.” But she said she relishes the challenge and “I do love it here.”

She wants to see her adopted city succeed and thinks it’s just a matter of figuring out the right approach. She counts International Falls Mayor Bob Anderson as a “huge advocate” of the school and serves on one of the committees he set up to explore options for job retention and increased economic diversity. She also participates in a cross-border discussion group with Canadians “to gain information and figure out how to help each other grow.”

“It’s not a choice to not do something,” Favela said. “We need to create jobs. The question of the day is, What is the magic industry? We have to commit to find it. ‘At the moment of commitment,’ she said, quoting the German writer Goethe, ‘the entire universe conspires to assist you.’”