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Shirley Bond, Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Trainin of British Columbia. (BEN NELMS/REUTERS)
Shirley Bond, Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Trainin of British Columbia. (BEN NELMS/REUTERS)

Opinion

Job 1 might be an overhaul of Liberals’ jobs program Add to ...

For a government that professes to be focused on creating jobs in the trades, Jessica McDonald’s review of the provincial agency responsible for apprenticeship training reads like a bad report card.

The Industry Training Authority, a creation of the B.C. Liberal government, has been buffeted by one-off decisions, created bad blood between key partners and has suffered whiplash from abrupt policy changes without consultation, she found. There are no overarching targets and, as a result, funds are being spent in the wrong places.

It is a chronicle of a decade of missed opportunities, says Tom Sigurdson of BC Building Trades.

Mr. Sigurdson was in Victoria last week when Ms. McDonald’s report was released. Her report was slipped into the back of the government’s announcement about its new plan to overhaul the entire education system, from kindergarten to university, to engineer more trades-ready graduates.

The provincial government is imposing big changes across the system to head off a looming skills shortage in the resource sector. The news conference featured a host of fresh-faced apprentices and a slick, $1.5-million mobile training facility on the front lawns of the legislature to showcase the opportunities for students to try their hand at welding and pipe-fitting.

What Ms. McDonald found however is that the agency responsible for funding trades training and setting standards for credentials has contributed to the problem the government is trying to address.

There are skills shortages in Northern B.C. now, while B.C.-trained apprentices are working on projects in Alberta, pointing to a mismatch of training.

Employers have been left to voluntarily take on the training responsibility – a challenge that hasn’t been met.

“Currently, there is an undeniable preference to attract skilled workers from other employers,” she wrote. “Other jurisdictions in Canada have taken a tougher stance on this.”

Ms. McDonald says the changes made to the apprenticeship program by the Liberals reduced the support network for apprentices. They also cut the regional counsellors who inspected workplace training programs to make sure employers were meeting standards.

From the trade unions and construction industry, there is rare agreement that the B.C. education system, including apprenticeship training, has been unresponsive to the realities of the job market.

“This is a blueprint – it will take a lot of effort by industry, government, labour and others to pull it back together,” Mr. Sigurdson said.

Philip Hochstein of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association is more cautious about the need for wholesale change. The system isn’t broken, he said, but it needs updating: “Because of the [liquefied natural gas] opportunity there was a greater sense of urgency to ensure the parts of the system – education and apprenticeships – are pushing in the same direction and focusing on outcomes that the economy needs.”

Shirley Bond, the jobs minister who commissioned the review last year, has embraced the report.

A key recommendation was to set training goals based on labour market realities – prompting the government to pledge a new labour market data team that will provide constantly updated advice on what skills are in demand.

That data will shape where education funds across the whole system will be targeted. It has some educators – notably universities that stand to lose government funding – nervous.

But Ms. Bond said the data-driven model has been in her sights since she took the jobs portfolio last summer. Today her office features massive charts that track the intricate forecasts for trades requirements of 40 major projects that are expected to move ahead in the coming decade.

These kinds of charts will be the new guiding mantra, not just for the training authority, but educators across the whole system. Will this new system work? Ms. Bond hopes so, but trying to both predict the job market and then produce just the right workers amounts to a grand experiment. “It’s an art,” she said, “not a science.”

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