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David Parkins illustration/The Globe and Mail

Calgary's leading technology training institute, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) Polytechnic, has just been named the top research college in Canada. The ranking comes a year after Alberta Premier Alison Redford opened the new Trades and Technology Complex at the campus, an addition that came with $300-million in support from her government.

In Alberta, the words "prestigious" and "trades training" are compatible.

In British Columbia, where the government is now looking to overhaul education from kindergarten to postsecondary in pursuit of a new skills-training agenda, there is still a wide gap.

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Mike Howard is a cabinetmaker by trade, who spent Friday in the Squamish high school where he graduated 31 years ago. The shop where he learned woodworking skills as a student hasn't changed much.

Mr. Howard is now a shop teacher – and president of the British Columbia Technology Education Association, an arm of the B.C. Teachers' Federation. He's happy to hear that the provincial government is proposing to reinvent the public school curriculum to help churn out a future work force that can apply theory in practical ways. Mr. Howard says he figures students can learn the Pythagorean theorem far better in a metal-shop class than sitting at a desk.

"If you are sitting in my shop class, I'm screaming at you – because if you are sitting, you are not doing anything," he said.

The province's new draft curriculum for kindergarten to Grade 9 aims to change the way B.C. schools teach. It's based on the idea that students will learn more usable skills with hands-on, multidisciplinary projects than the current regime where learning is done in silos measured in 62-minute blocks.

But without government investment in upgrading school shops, Mr. Howard says, "it's all just lip service."

Some innovation is already taking place: At one Fort St. John high school, teachers collaborated on a mostly project-based program. At a Courtenay middle school, Grade 7 students were presented with wood and carpentry tools at the beginning of the term, and told to build their own desks and benches.

In Victoria, the government is still working on the big picture. There is a broad re-think of education, including the role of postsecondary and apprenticeship training. In November, an independent review of the Industry Training Authority, which handles credentials and standards for apprenticeship programs, is due. The B.C. Liberal government has even reached out to the labour movement, for the first time, for solutions to what it warns is a looming jobs crisis.

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It is innovation driven by anxiety – some research suggests the province is just a few years away from the point where the number of jobs will exceed the number of qualified workers. How do you entice billions of dollars in new investment if there are not enough workers to build the projects? If the new jobs in construction, mining and a liquefied natural gas industry are not to be filled by temporary foreign workers, B.C. needs to ramp up its trades training quickly.

The province is expected to see more than a million job openings in this decade, and roughly three-quarters of those jobs will require a trade certificate or postsecondary education.

But Shirley Bond, Minister for Jobs and Skills Training, said she still meets with resistance when she talks about training for those jobs. "The vast majority of parents believe their children are going on to university to get a degree as a doctor or a lawyer," she said. "There is that stigma, that concept that somehow trades are a less meaningful choice. People equate the trades with dirt under the fingernails."

Adrian Dix, the B.C. NDP Leader, tried to make skills training a key issue in the provincial election last spring. No surprise that he says the Liberal government is arriving late to the game. More unexpected, however, is the fact that he points to Alberta as a model to emulate.

SAIT Polytechnic is not just a successful institute, but a beautiful campus, he noted. It reflects an investment in, and appreciation for, the trades that isn't part of B.C. culture. B.C.'s tech colleges don't get the respect that the province's main universities enjoy. "They need to be the shining cities on the hill," he said. "In Alberta they value the trades, so getting your ticket is of greater value than in B.C."

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