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Marilyn Luscombe, left, and Liane Roy run the separate-but-equal English- and French-language New Brunswick colleges systems, respectively.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

After nearly 40 years, New Brunswick's community colleges are getting over their identity crisis.

Since its inception in 1973, the bilingual system evolved from pure trades colleges to more expansive professional training schools and grew to 11 campuses. They've shifted from a corporate body to an extension of the provincial government and, now, back again. In 2010, when New Brunswick spun off the colleges into two crown corporations – one English, one French – it was the last province to do so.

The constant shape-shifting long made it difficult to adapt to the province's labour market. Now, though, the colleges are catching up. New Brunswick Community College, or NBCC, and its separate-but-equal French counterpart, CCNB, are under pressure to add more seats and become more student-focused, more modern and quicker to respond to private-sector demands.

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That's happening, albeit slowly. Since the shift in governance in 2010, the colleges' postsecondary certificate and degree programs have seen enrolment tick up by just a few per cent. But NBCC and CCNB have changed significantly. Their governance is more independent than it has been before; they're taking on research for the first time; and they're shifting their infrastructure to better meet community needs.

In a have-not province trying to stymie outmigration, that's crucial. Used to their greatest potential, community colleges can offer solutions to skills gaps and bolster productivity, levelling the playing field with the rest of Canada and keeping the kids at home, instead of Alberta or Ontario.

"Colleges are doing a great job of trying to differentiate themselves by saying, 'Yes, we train people for a labour market gap,'" says Marilyn Luscombe, president and chief executive of NBCC. "We believe that we're looked at even more as a true asset for the province with regard to helping mitigate the mismatch between skills and jobs, and the lack of skills for certain jobs."

The English network reviews its programs annually, seeking advice this past year from 149 different industry players to improve them.

Like its English counterpart, CCNB is trying to be nimble: Liane Roy, who runs CCNB, has struck a committee of senior management to seek out new income streams, strengthen continuing education programs and bolster research and innovation.

The changes have paid off. The French colleges attracted more research dollars than any other Atlantic Canadian college in 2013, ranking 33rd in Canada according to R&D research and consultancy Research Infosource. Meanwhile, no longer a wing of the government, NBCC became eligible for – and was granted – its first public research chair through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada: Dr. Bill McIver, who researches mobile-first technology.

Research bolsters the colleges' roles in New Brunswick's economic development. Four of CCNB's five Francophone campuses, for instance, are in the economically depressed northern part of the province. In Grand Falls, the college has set up a Biorefinery Technology Scale-Up Centre to complement the local potato industry with a handful of full-time local research jobs. "That's one of my preoccupations," Ms. Roy says – "how to better meet the needs of our communities."

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But there remains a battle for New Brunswick's retooled colleges as they fight against demographics: In a province where more than half the population grapples with basic literacy, getting residents into applied learning programs remains a struggle.

"We're trying to recruit better, and recruit more, but the demographics are against us," Ms. Roy says. While CCNB has more international students than ever, there are fewer high-school graduates living in New Brunswick to recruit, and literacy and competency levels in the province hold back local students from even applying.

In New Brunswick, 53.5 per cent of adults struggle with basic literacy – about 5 percentage points more than the national average.

Once students graduate from college in New Brunswick, the numbers are in their favour: According to internal polling, 85 per cent of 2012 CCNB graduates and 87 per cent of NBCC graduates found employment within a year of graduating. Most of those who worked stayed in the province.

So the schools, in turn, are working to prepare potential students, including essential-skills courses for adults and high-school partnerships to give students access to more college programs. "I've had to develop new pathways to help people bring their competencies up in order to be able to come into the programs," Ms. Roy says.

The colleges' most recent identity crisis came to light in 2005, when the system's administrators began to make noise about structural changes in labour market demands. Then, in 2007, the province dropped a skills-training bombshell: a consultant's report titled Advantage New Brunswick that suggested numerous postsecondary changes to address labour market needs.

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It recommended, among other things, that the University of New Brunswick's Saint John campus be merged with the local community college to become one of three new polytechnic schools in the province.

That did not go over well. New Brunswickers literally took to the streets to protest losing the university, distracting from any public discourse on colleges and skills training. The province backpedalled on the report with in months. The next year, on the recommendations of a university-and-college-led working group, the provincial Liberals released an "action plan" that reiterated many less-controversial points of the previous report, including the need for a "modern, autonomous community college system."

That idea stuck: in 2010, the NBCC and CCNB became independent crown corporations, with their own boards and presidents. Ms. Luscombe, a former Selkirk College president and chair of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges, was brought in to run the English wing. Ms. Roy had been the assistant deputy minister in charge of rolling out the 2008 action plan before being hired to run French-language CCNB.

Rick Miner, a former vice-president of UNB Saint John who co-authored the widely debated 2007 report, says if he could do it over again, he would have made the same recommendations – with a different word than polytechnic. But he believes the revamped college system is a step forward. "It allows them to be a bit more responsive" to labour needs, he says, "so I think it's the right direction."

The controversy that spilled from that 2007 report helped push Shawn Graham's then-governing Liberals out of office in 2010. After four years of Progressive Conservative rule, the province has turned back to the (vastly different-looking) Liberal party in September. Francine Landry, the new Minister of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour, was unavailable for an interview. But in a statement to The Globe and Mail, Premier Brian Gallant acknowledged labour market skills gaps are "one of the biggest obstacles to economic growth" in the province, with colleges playing a role in fixing them.

As the province bets on projects like the Energy East pipeline and the Sisson Brook Mine project, Mr. Gallant wrote, "we will be looking to New Brunswick's community colleges to help ensure that our workers are skilled, trained, and ready to meet the needs of employers in the province."

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