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Athabasca U report on moving IT staff to Edmonton area helps explain motivation for space discussions with City of St. Albert

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Marlin Schmidt

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St. ALBERT, Alberta

Athabasca University appears to have a plan to consolidate all its Information Technology operations in the Edmonton area, according to a 2015 report on the future workspace needs at the financially troubled distance-education university.

The plan also appears to include a sure-to-be controversial shift from using permanent, secure IT staff to an insecure force of workers in precarious positions, a shift that critics are bound to argue will risk declining service for Athabasca U students.

This idea may help to explain the "active discussions" to build and share a new office building on city-owned land that were taking place in the same approximate time frame between AU and the City of St. Albert, first reported in this space three weeks ago.

The report of AU's Space Strategy Working Group was presented on Sept. 9, 2015, to the Board of Governors of the public university, which is based in the town of Athabasca, 130 kilometres north of Edmonton. A copy, apparently the subject of a Freedom of Information request by members of the university community, has been obtained by AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Indeed, the report's authors noted that "AU is currently working in collaboration with the City of St. Albert on an Expression of Interest which is designed to identify potential developers and development concepts that would fit well within AU's long-term mandate of consolidating its Metro Edmonton locations into one site."

As a result, the report elaborates, "recommendations offered by this report are intended to provide remedial solution (sic) for the 2-5 year time horizon." That is, likely before the St. Albert building could be completed if the AU talks with the city move ahead.

The "space strategy" discussed in the report must be considered in the context of the fact senior AU administrators have floated the idea the university ought to leave the town of Athabasca -- a development that would cause both an economic crisis for the community and serious political problems for the NDP government elected on May 5, 2015.

This situation is bound to land immediately -- if it hasn't already -- on the desk of the NDP's new minister of Advanced Education, Marlin Schmidt, who was appointed to the portfolio in Premier Rachel Notley's Feb. 2 cabinet shuffle.

The document repeats past arguments by AU administrators that it's getting harder to recruit in Athabasca, citing "increasing anecdotal evidence from all faculties and departments" that when staff members leave or retire, "the challenges of recruitment necessitate that their replacement is found in a large urban area. … This trend points in the direction of having to place an increasing number of newly recruited staff in the coming years to Edmonton locations."

Needless to say, this conclusion, particularly since it is based on anecdotal evidence, is bound to be fiercely disputed in Athabasca.

The report went on to claim that IT is an area where such challenges are particularly severe, citing such reasons as the mobility of the IT workforce and therefore the desire of IT workers to be in a location with many potential employers. "They have a clear preference to locate in an urban centre, where future opportunities are more diverse and plentiful."

Interestingly, the report also suggests that as a public-sector employer in Alberta, AU's pay may be too low to attract IT workers to Athabasca. "Some skill sets are highly sought out by the private sector against which public sector employment and/or contract agreements cannot fairly compete."

The report seems to suggest, moreover, that it’s a bad thing that those who seek public sector work in a place like Athabasca may be doing so "seeking job security or aspiring to live in a rural community." Many in Alberta would also disagree with that conclusion.

The report said a grimly worded task force report requested in 2014 by interim AU President Peter MacKinnon suggesting the university could become insolvent in the current fiscal year and media reports about it are discouraging prospective job applicants as well.

After also arguing a large metropolitan area can better offer redundant electrical power infrastructure needed by AU’s IT operations, the report concludes, "logistically, the best location for these services would be somewhere in the St. Albert or the North Edmonton metropolitan area due to the close proximity of these locales to Athabasca, and the existing complement of ITS and non-ITS staff that currently reside at these locales."

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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