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Former ambassador to the United States Frank McKenna at Cap-Pele, N.B.The Globe and Mail

Twenty-five years after he left public office, former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna has taken on an ambitious project to transform his province’s economy for the digital age – work, he says, that picks up where he left off in 1997.

Mr. McKenna, whose 10-year run as premier was focused on modernizing government and job creation, hopes his new McKenna Institute at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) can dramatically increase the number of homegrown tech startups and computer science grads in the province while retraining its work force.

“I want to finish the work that I started,” said Mr. McKenna, the deputy chairman of Toronto-Dominion Bank and a former ambassador to the United States. “All of my life’s work has been around trying to transform New Brunswick, and since I’ve been out of public life, I’ve been looking for something that could really move the dial.”

On Wednesday, the McKenna Institute announced a new partnership with IBM Canada that aims to retrain as many as 40,000 people in the province for entry-level tech and non-tech jobs across a range of sectors, using IBM’s SkillsBuild program.

Some of these free courses, many of which can be accessed online, can be completed in a matter of weeks and are geared toward everyone from auto mechanics to high-school teachers looking to upgrade their technology skills, Mr. McKenna said. It’s an approach called micro-credentialing – giving people tailored retraining with real certifications that don’t require enrolment in a postsecondary program.

“Our goal is really to take someone and make them entry-level IT ready in six months, not two years or four years or six years,” said Dave McCann, the president of IBM Canada. “It’s focused on driving employment. This is not just about skilling people for the sake of skilling them. It’s about giving employment-ready skills, quickly.”

The program intends to provide technology training for new immigrants, in their own language, the former premier said. He also wants the courses to be brought into First Nations communities using remote learning software.

Mr. McKenna, who has put $5-million of his own money into the new UNB institute and aims to raise $50-million from the private sector, envisions a broad digital training campaign for the entire province beginning in elementary school and reaching people long into their careers.

That includes teaching coding in schools and at summer computer camps and tech workshops for companies that want to improve their employees’ digital skills.

“We want to create a digitally enabled and excited work force, right from the time kids go to Grade 1,” Mr. McKenna said. “The whole intent is to try to create a cradle-to-grave innovation agenda for New Brunswick. We need to dramatically increase the number of digitally enabled workers.”

A decade ago, New Brunswick’s tech sector seemed poised for takeoff. The $1-billion sale of Q1 Labs and Radian6, in the province that created pioneering phone technology from NBTel, drew attention from companies around the world. But today, that tech ecosystem needs help, Mr. McKenna said.

The primary problem is a labour gap, he said. There are not nearly enough workers with the necessary tech skills to fill the demand from employers. An estimated 2,000 positions will go unfilled in New Brunswick within the next three to five years.

That’s why one of the goals of the McKenna Institute is to double the number of computer science graduates at UNB and triple the number of postgraduates in the program.

The timing, Mr. McKenna said, couldn’t be better. New Brunswick is enjoying something of a population boom due to workers relocating from other provinces during the pandemic. The growth of remote work means more tech workers, and more entrepreneurs, are choosing to make the province home.

“The pandemic created an extraordinary opportunity for us. We just need to provide people with the educational tools to take advantage,” Mr. McKenna said. “I’m pretty jacked up about this.”

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