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Jeff Lekstrom retires from Northern Lights College after 23 years

When Jeff Lekstrom left the Dawson Creek campus of Northern Lights College (NLC) so many years ago as a graduate of their welding program, he had no idea that he would one day be leaving the school again as the departing Dean of Trades, Apprenticeship and Technology.

However, that is exactly what happened on April 27, the day Lekstrom finally bid farewell to the college after a 23 year career in education that also included a stint as a welding instructor.

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It was another instructor at NLC who first gave Lekstrom the idea to try his hand at teaching the tricks of his trade when he was in Dawson Creek for a job.

"He said, 'You ever thought about instructing?'" Lekstrom recalled.

He hadn't yet considered the possibility, even though his father had also taught welding at the college during the seventies.

"He kind of planted the seed," Lekstrom said of that instructor. "And so the more I thought about it, the more I thought, 'That's pretty interesting. I think I'd like to try that.'"

Prior to that career change, he had been a professional welder operating his own business and had also served a supervisory role in the mining industry.

"I've tried to bring a trades perspective to the academic world," said Lekstrom.

"It is a huge part of our college," he continued. "Trades and apprenticeship [and] technology account for a real high percentage of the student activity at Northern Lights College."

Sandra Sandvik can attest to his impact on the trades and technology programs at NLC.

As the campus administrator in Fort Nelson, Sandvik worked closely with Lekstrom to bring programs such as power engineering and oil and gas field operations to the small Northeast British Columbia community.

They also managed to offer welding and heavy equipment operator programs to students in Dease Lake.

"Pretty exciting for the community to get that training right there," said Sandvik.

"Those trips that he made up there," she continued, "he was just amazing at selling and promoting trades training to the students. He'd go into the classrooms and talk to the kids. And could really relate to kids and get them excited about it. That was really cool.

"And then to see some programs happen in the community was a great opportunity for the community. He just gave everything for the students to make stuff happen. And be there for the students. And the same for the programs we've done in Fort Nelson."

Trades and Apprenticeship Coordinator Pam Eales, who will also serve as one of two associate deans until a new Dean of Trades, Apprenticeship and Technology is in place, has also worked closely with Lekstrom throughout his tenure.

"I've been his sidekick for the last 13 years," said Eales, noting that that relationship began when Lekstrom was an instructor.

"The joke is that we share the same brain."

Eales said that Lekstrom brought a similar approach to working with the students as he brought to working with his colleagues at the college.

"Truly," she continued, "here's a guy that supports you throughout anything. Encourages you to try anything. He'd put you in situations that would allow you to experience new things, to grow, to shine and all that.

"But you always knew he had your back. I've never worked with anyone like him. And he is going to be one individual that's truly hard to replace.

"He wanted to ensure that the experience was good for the students," she added. "That they got top notch training and, when they left here, that they were job ready."

"I've worked with Jeff for the last five years," said Mark Heartt.

Heartt, the other associate dean along with Eales, is a residential construction instructor and the Trades and Apprenticeship Chair in Dawson Creek.

"One of the most professional men I've worked with," he added.

Heartt was self-employed prior to joining the NLC faculty and he credits Lekstrom with making that transition an easy one.

"Pretty much seamless because he didn't micromanage us," he said. "When he trusted you, he trusted you to make the decisions."

Jeff Beale never did work with Lekstrom at NLC, but the two men have been colleagues of a different sort for a number of years.

Beale, an aboriginal relations advisor with Encana, has had a long relationship with the college as the industry co-chair of Northern Opportunities, a partnership between natural resource industries, First Nations, NLC and the school districts of Northeast B.C. that allows students to earn secondary and postsecondary credits during their high school years through the Dual Credit program.

"It improves graduation rates for those that can get in," Beale said of the program. "And it provides an opportunity to get a leg up on trades particularly, but also academic and other vocational programs, too, so that students basically come out with a partial first year of academic programs and definitely a first level [training in a trade].

"That's why we work together so much," he continued. "And, of course, as industry, we have a desire to kind of increase and improve the workforce. You know, qualification, certifications, so that they can easily transition into careers in chosen pathways. As one of the industry reps [with] Northern Opportunities, I give guidance to the educational institutes as to what kind of stuff we're after. And that's how Jeff and I worked together a lot."

They also collaborated on specific projects, such as the recent power engineering program offered in Fort Nelson, which was sponsored by Encana, Spectra Energy and the Northeast Aboriginal Skills and Employment Program (NEASEP).

"It's stuff like that that we work on together a lot," said Beale. "And I'm hoping to do more of those kinds of things. Of course, with Jeff going, it gives us a bit of a hiccup, but, nevertheless, that position is integral to helping industry and the education institutes work at such a high level.

"We just really appreciate the touch that he's had on thousands of students," he added. "And his major contribution to the formation of Northern Opportunities and the Dual Credit opportunities between the high school and the college. He's right at the foundation of it all."

Beale puts Lekstrom's trades background at the heart of his successes at NLC and his contribution to the industries that utilize the trades that are taught at the college.

"I see him as a talented tradesman, for a start, which gave him a good understanding of what's required by industry and also the opportunities that can be had by getting into industry, especially early," he explained.

"And he communicates in a very passionate, parental-thinking kind of mindset that is, obviously, technical in nature, but very, very colloquial and approachable for students, parents and folks like myself in industry.

"He runs tight, very good, well delivered programs," he added. "And when it comes to sort of the recruitment side, he's got just a perfect pitch with parents and students."

Being a Dawson Creek native hasn't hurt either, said Beale.

"Clearly, his local knowledge, having grown up and all that here in Dawson Creek, makes him an invaluable contributor to both the college and then local industry as he interfaces with us."

Lekstrom admitted that his roles at the college have included their own unique challenges, but he believes that is true of any job.

He prefers to focus on the rewards.

"Helping the students and making a positive impact on their lives every day," he said, noting that he had a very different view of his impact on students from the dean's chair than he did as an instructor.

"You move into administration, it's a little different," Lekstrom explained. "You're kind of behind the scenes. So, you don't get that instant gratification.

"A student doesn't say thank you for giving them a program," he continued. "[Although] that happened for the welding program when I was helping move it up to Fort Nelson. A student came up to me and was very emotional, and I'll remember that to the day I die, that he said thank you for moving the program there. He knew that I had helped on the administrative side of things.

"He was thankful because he said he would never have that opportunity to take that program anywhere else, because his family lived up there, he couldn't afford to attend college any other way."

Lekstrom is grateful to NLC for giving him the flexibility to make those programs - and those moments - happen.

One challenge that Lekstrom did address is the dynamic nature of industries that employ the trades students learn at NLC, as those changes can be both positive and negative.

"I think it's cyclical in nature," he said. "You've got the ups and downs of the different industries, whether it be mining or oil and gas or forestry or anything. One thing with trades, and I maintain this, is everybody uses trades, whether you're in the mining or the oil and gas or the forestry or the construction industry.

"There's very few programs here at Northern Lights College in the trades that are specific to one industry. That provides the versatility of people coming out of these programs to go and do a number of different things.

"If one industry's up, then they go to work in that. If that industry happens to go in a downturn, they've got skills that they can be transferable to other industries with. And that's good because the trades and apprenticeship programs we have at the college are Red Seal - for the most part they're all Red Seal trades. That gives you the ability to work across Canada. Well, basically, across the world."

The news of his retirement has brought mixed reactions from the colleagues who know him best.

"I was pretty disappointed," said Heartt.

"There's going to be some very, very big shoes to fill."

"Because I've known him and worked with him so closely, I wasn't surprised," said Sandvik. "I thought he was getting ready to make that move and make a bit of a change in his life, because he's been with the college a long time. And I'm very excited for him.

"I think this is a really cool opportunity," she continued, discussing his plans to continue his career in education at an international level. "And I think he's ready for that change too. He's given everything to the college while he's been there."

Sandvik that Lekstrom was a good friend in addition to being a good colleague.

"You can always phone and yack to him about stuff," she said. He was always there for the staff Good person. Going to be missed. But we wish him well. We really wish him well. Because this next phase for him will be exciting too."

Eales echoed Sandvik's sentiments.

"So happy for him in this is something that he has wanted to do for a long time," she said. "And you know he wants to grow too."

Still, Eales is reluctant to say goodbye.

"I'm very sad to see him go," she continued. "To me, I work with the best team of people, and there's not a day that didn't go by that we weren't bouncing ideas off of each other, whether it was about work or family or friends. Whatever, right? You spend so much time with the people that you work with. And to know that he's going so far away, that's the hard part.

"I'm totally selfish. I'm so happy for him and his family. And this is wonderful. Like if he didn't take it, I'd kick his ass.

"But on the other side, it's like, 'I don't want you to leave because I like this team.' We've got a good thing going here. You establish a friendship and everything. And it's like, oh, I'm losing a friend, a mentor, a support system."

However, Eales is also confident that the team Lekstrom has helped to build will be able to succeed in his absence.

"This is a guy that, when you talk to him, he's not going to bullshit," she added. "And he's one of those individuals that his word is a contract. You know, when someone says they're going to do something and they shake your hand, that's Jeff.

"Whether it be at work or outside of work, I knew that if something happened, I could pick up the phone and there's no questions asked. And if he says he's going to do something, he does it. And he really looks out for everyone else. Just his whole family.

"I think Dawson Creek's losing someone."

It seems that Lekstrom is going to miss Dawson Creek and NLC too.

"I've been very fortunate to do something I love," he said. "I've been really fortunate to work with a great group of people. The instructors here are excellent. They're all here for the right reasons. They're very student-focused.

"It's just time for me to move on. I've been given some opportunity to pursue some stuff internationally. I've had a great, great career at the college. The college has been very good to me."

@ Copyright Pipeline News North

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