For Doug Horner, politics and agriculture are in his blood. Alberta’s Minister of Advanced Education and Technology, Horner and three generations before him have been involved with agriculture. His father, Dr. Hugh Horner, was a former minister of agriculture, and several uncles were also politically active. In conversation with senior writer Lisa Williams, it’s clear that Horner is passionate about investing in education and technology not only to meet the needs of a booming economy and population explosion, but also to ensure that the needs of future generations will be met. Excerpts from their conversation follow.

Q. As the Minister of Advanced Education and Technology, what is at the top of your list with respect to what you want to accomplish within your ministry?

A. We’ve been presented mandate letters from our premier, Ed Stelmach; that’s something that hadn’t happened for Alberta cabinet ministers in the past. These mandate letters establish the premier’s vision of the government’s priorities for our departments, and we (the ministers) will be judged by how well we meet these mandate letters. Stelmach also made these letters public. This means Albertans will be able to judge me in my role as minister by how well I’ve responded to my mandate letter.

If I were to bring the list down to one or two critical things, the first one is what we refer to as the Campus Alberta approach in the province. Under that Campus Alberta approach, we need to establish a framework of the roles, responsibilities and mandates of each post-secondary institution. Having moved down that path to get that done, we are also going to be better able to address the access, affordability and capacity issues that we need to deal with in our post-secondary institutions. That’s a high priority for this department.

The other focus is our Technology Commercialization Taskforce. The value-added side to that is we’ve brought together a small group of experts and a larger advisory taskforce. We (Government of Alberta) want strategic advice from them in order to deliver the framework needed to ensure that the future technologies we create, as a result of investments in research and development (R&D) and our post-secondary institutions, are going to be commercialized here.

That broadens our economic base. We’re an energy province, we know that, and probably will be for many years to come. At the same time, we want to be a technology province as well.

Q. You touched on the fact Alberta is an energy province, and that there’s been major population growth lately as a direct result of that. How has that affected the growth of the ICT sector within the province?

A. I think it’s given us the impetus to make it a top priority. Industry is certainly reacting, and trying to bring technology for productivity gains.

We’ve had rapid growth, some of it almost mind-boggling when you have a small community that grows by about 28 per cent in one year. I’m not talking about Edmonton or Calgary, but a small community just outside my riding. You get to see first-hand how that affects a community.

Technology R&D is going to be the driver for the productivity that we need because we have a labour shortage. Even though we have this tremendous growth and people moving in, we have a tremendous demand for more people to fill these spots. As that drives our labour costs up, companies and the public sector are going to need to turn to more technology solutions to help us deliver the services Alberta will need.

Q. Obviously the shortage would directly impact the education side of the equation, where you’ll have to recruit people to fill the gap you’re having within the ICT sector. How are you tackling that from an HR perspective?

A. Fortunately, over the past little while we have recognized R&D as a key to the growth of the province. In fact, a group called iCORE (Informatics Circle of Research Excellence) in Alberta was started eight or nine years ago to address that need. The focus of iCORE is to try to attract the brightest and the best in a particular field. A lot of that has been centered on the energy industry as well as the agricultural industry.

Our goal now is to expand those types of recruitment activities, and from a post-secondary perspective, train some home-grown talent. We have two or three of some of the best universities in North America, with a tremendously successful track record in research and attraction of research capital. We should be utilizing that strength, and we’re going to make that a priority as well.

For Doug Horner, politics and agriculture are in his blood. Alberta’s Minister of Advanced Education and Technology, Horner and three generations before him have been involved with agriculture. His father, Dr. Hugh Horner, was a former minister of agriculture, and several uncles were also politically active. In conversation with senior writer Lisa Williams, it’s clear that Horner is passionate about investing in education and technology not only to meet the needs of a booming economy and population explosion, but also to ensure that the needs of future generations will be met. Excerpts from their conversation follow.

Previous page: Population growth, recruitment and retention

Q. You have a diploma in business from SAIT (Southern Alberta Institute of Technology); how did that education inform the work you’re doing now?

A. We’re all a compilation of our education and our experiences, and I’ve been blessed with a career in international marketing. I lived in the United States for three years where I worked for a large corporation, but also did a lot of international travel. I had the opportunity to see what other economies and jurisdictions were doing in different areas, not just in agriculture, but in their business and economy sectors.

I think the training that I had with the SAIT business diploma really did form the basis for my business career. It put me into the banking industry, which led me to finance, and then into marketing. It just followed that it was along the lines of agriculture because of the value-added products that I was marketing worldwide.

This job gives me a sound appreciation of the importance of post-secondary education, not only to the individual but to the province as a whole. It gives me an interesting perspective on the international marketplace which we compete in. Alberta is going to be more and more under the gun to be globally competitive as individual businesses and provinces in a knowledge-based economy. If we don’t put the investment in today, then our citizens are going to be at a disadvantage.

Q. One of the committees you’re a member of is the Treasury Board and the Cabinet Policy Committee on Managing Growth Pressures; could you speak to what that committee is all about?

A. Every province has a treasury board, as does the federal government. The Treasury Board is the committee of MLAs and cabinet colleagues who reviews items of a financial nature as it relates to our spending and our revenue. We’ve separated the Minister of Finance as the chair, and created a new position as president of treasury board. I think it was a good move when you have the kind of growth that we have going on in the province – 38, 000 people moved into the City of Calgary last year. That’s the size of a small city anywhere.

There isn’t a community in my riding that doesn’t have at least one new subdivision. It’s amazing because with 38,000 people, even if they only brought one family member with them, think of the impact on the schools, the hospitals, roads, etc. These are all huge growth issues that we have to deal with, and then you start to think about what is the growth pressure that we’re facing today, and how is that going to affect us 10 years from now?

Q. Three generations of your family were involved with agriculture, and your father, Dr. Hugh Horner, was a former Minister of Agriculture. What type of advice did he pass to you, and what sort of impact did that have on your career?

A. He gave me lots of advice…I come from a family that obviously was very keen on the land. My grandfather was a senator and two or three uncles also ran as elected officials federally. I’m very proud of my family history.

Something that I learned from watching my father, and actually working with him and one of my brothers in our oat and barley processing facility, was that his credo was integrity and honour. If you didn’t have those two things, he didn’t have much time for you. And that blends into loyalty and being able to stand up. If I picked up 80 per cent of what he did, then I’m a happy camper.

I tell my kids this now: if you start telling things that aren’t true, and if you start acting bigger than you are, both of those things are going to come back to bite you in a big way. It’s just so much easier to shoot from the hip, say what’s in your heart and recognize your limitations, but shoot for far beyond them.

Q. Is either of them interested in pursuing a career in politics?

A. I would say if you’d asked me at their age, early 20s or teens, if I thought I was going to be in politics, I’d have laughed at you and said, never in a million years. And I’m sure they would say the same thing right now.

Lisa Williams is senior writer with InterGovWorld.com. She can be reached at lwilliams@intergovworld.com.

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