Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Jobs losses in Athabasca continue

This week brings us another example of Athabasca University (AU) saying one thing to its employees and doing another. This time, the topic is AU’s mixed messages about keeping jobs in the town of Athabasca.

AU is the largest employer in the town of Athabasca. AU also operates campuses in Edmonton (2) and Calgary (1) and about half of its 1100 employees (mostly the instructional staff) work from home offices.

A long-standing issue is the degree to which AU is shifting operations out of Athabasca. This issue came to a head after a 2015 report mooted AU leaving town, a 2016 report that AU was planning on a new campus in St. Albert, and another 2016 report that IT jobs would shift there.

In 2016, political backlash saw Minister of Advanced Education Marlin Schmidt direct AU to develop a plan to keep AU in Athabasca. Not surprisingly, a 2017 report on AU’s future suggested maintaining (and perhaps expanding) the size of its operations in Athabasca. Then-new AU President Neil Fassina told the Edmonton Journal that
…the university was “100 per cent committed to our presence in Athabasca” and that it needed to “take advantage of the immense opportunity that is inherent in the town.”
Yet, AU’s behaviour since then has not really lived up to the hype. None of AU’s senior executives live in Athabasca anymore. Most live in Edmonton or Calgary and visit Athabasca one day per week or less. AU’s new strategic plan, spearheaded by Fassina, says essentially nothing about the town of Athabasca and planning for a new Edmonton-area campus is underway.

This approach to the location issue sits uncomfortably with continued messaging by the government that “Athabasca University… is an important part of the Town of Athabasca.”

There is data to support continued concerns about jobs slowly leaving the town of Athabasca. Analysis of AU staffing suggests that there has been a steady loss of jobs over the past five years, with jobs shifting to Edmonton and Calgary. Here are some examples.

Professional staff (e.g., IT workers, editors, other unionized professional staff) saw an overall reduction in numbers (from 247 in 2013 to 201 in late 2018). The biggest losses have been in Athabasca (net loss of 29) and the majority of professionals now work elsewhere.
There is a similar story among excluded management jobs. The overall decline (from 23 in 2014 to 17 in 2018 ) includes a large shift in positions away from Athabasca. This data also masks a very high level of turnover among directors and executives.

On February 6, a staff member asked Fassina why job postings no longer say nice things about living in Athabasca. Fassina responded that all job postings state, “all else being equal, preference will be given to the individual who is willing to live or relocate to Athabasca. All of our job postings have got that now.”

Staff fact-checked him as he was speaking and found that wasn’t true. Fassina said he would take that away. A month later, this language is still missing from all job postings (including those where no location is specified).

The job postings do, once again, say nice things about living in Athabasca:
The vibrant town of Athabasca is located in the heart of Alberta's boreal forest on the banks of the Athabasca River. The community offers modern services, affordable housing, excellent public schools, and a variety of recreational activities to suit everyone's lifestyle. 
Athabasca University offers an interest-free loan for new employees who relocate within Athabasca County or the Town of Athabasca.
When queried, HR’s explanation for the re-introduction of Athabasca-booster statements was that they have to be included after the last connect with the President session.

That makes little sense because (1) that isn't what the president said would be in the job ads, (2) saying nice things about Athabasca is way less effective at bringing workers to town than would giving preference to Athabasca candidates, and (3) the Athabasca booster statements occur in jobs posted as Edmonton-only!

Further, that AU continues to insist jobs be located in Edmonton (when those jobs can clearly be done at any location) reveals the underlying problem: despite its purported commitment to keeping operations in Athabasca, AU doesn't make hiring to Athabasca a priority.

Further, requiring jobs be located in Edmonton (when there is no operational reason for the requirement) blocks Athabasca residents from acquiring these good jobs unless they leave town.

Saying one thing and doing another on the Athabasca job is issue does not help an administration beset by credibility problems due to its other labour relations practices. And the evidence clearly shows ongoing job losses in Athabasca.

I wonder what the government thinks about AU’s lack of compliance with Minister Schmidt’s direction about keeping AU in Athabasca?

-- Bob Barnetson


Anonymous said...

Last week two professional positions were posted AVP Student and Academic Services. Both ads had the blurb about relocating to Athabasca but I noticed that the position had a location of Edmonton. When I asked HR about the posting they told me that the positions are located in Edmonton and Athabasca applications would not be considered. HR has been instructed to include the blurb regardless of where the position is located......Pretty dirty in my option....

Renee Sibera Photography said...

As an Athabasca resident this saddens me. I do not work for the University but I see the value of it in our community. I think as a whole we need to remember the spirit of why Athabasca University was to be located in the community if the first place. The community leaders and committees also need to step up and work at retaining this asset in our community or it will continue to relocate.

Anonymous said...

I have a number of conversations with decision makers at AU and their reply every time I bring forward concerns is to ask why we care and say it isn't their problem.

This is in stark relief to their public proclamations.

It is also the exact same answer we get from our governing party when we bring it to them.

They answer to varying degrees that they care but don't believe the jobs are leaving and say their hands are tied.

The NDP has been a tremendous disappointment on this issue and it colours how I view other promises they make.

Anonymous said...

I applied for a job back in December, it listed all 3 locations and that people in Athabasca County or willing to move there would get priority. I currently work for AU, in Edmonton, doing a very similar job and parts of that job, and an external person was hired who moved to Athabasca got the job. So it's not always the case of Edmonton first. I can understand some jobs such as Faculty of Business hiring to Edmonton only as that's where their whole department is, they just posted a reception person.. hard to be reception for a Dept in Edmonton from Athabasca. Those # numbers, I wonder if those are beginning of year or after the 100-ish position abolishments.