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B.C. government to ‘re-engineer’ public-education system to produce graduates with in-demand skills; universities argue not all skills can be clearly defined.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

B.C.'s education system is getting an overhaul that will put more public money into preparing students for work in the province's booming resource sector.

But the shift is being made without a bigger budget, meaning the changes will likely come at the expense of students in fields where the job opportunities are not as obvious.

The B.C. government is expected to announce on Tuesday a 10-year skills training plan that will "re-engineer" the public-education system from kindergarten to post-secondary and apprenticeship training, directing more resources to providing the labour market's most in-demand skills. The announcement will feature high-school students in a welding class demonstration using a mobile trades training unit on the ground of the Parliament Buildings – the kind of hands-on learning the province plans to boost.

The province spends about $7.5-billion each year on training and education. In this fiscal year, $160-million will be shuffled to create more training opportunities with an eye on an anticipated construction boom in the province's north.

The "skills to jobs" plan aims to use the province's budget to produce an education system responsive to employers' needs: Over the 10 years, an ever-increasing share of education dollars will be allocated based on labour-market data.

The provincial government has complained that post-secondary institutions are producing graduates with skills that do not match what is needed. Premier Christy Clark said earlier this year that she does not like to see students collecting degrees that will not lead to employment. "That's a significant human loss," she told reporters in February. "So I think we should be making sure we are providing programming in our postsecondary institutions that provides people, young and old, with the promise and prospect of prosperity when they graduate."

The shift toward trades training has already started, unofficially. In the past couple of years, operating grants to universities have been flat and are set to decline over the next three years.

Universities argue that the pursuit of knowledge and critical thinking is a valid education goal. The province's six research universities made a joint presentation last fall to the government's finance committee, in which they said the province needs "innovative thinkers with the ability to transform and adapt to new technologies [and] a fast-changing marketplace and global environment." The university presidents stressed that employable skills are not always as clearly defined as a welder's ticket.

However, the B.C. Liberal government is responding to concerns from potential investors that the province will not able to provide a skilled work force to build proposed multibillion-dollar facilities in a liquefied natural gas industry. Those plants would be vying for employees at the same time the province expects as many as 40 other major projects to break ground.

A skills shortage in Australia has led to major cost overruns on LNG facilities and a backlash over the number of jobs going to foreign workers. Potential investors have asked for assurances about the B.C. labour pool before they make final decisions.

B.C. has 13 proposals for LNG plants on the books, and the province is confident five will go ahead, part of an estimated $165-billion worth of projects – pipelines, mines and LNG plants – forecast to be under way by 2023.

Ms. Clark says she wants to ensure the maximum number of British Columbians will be in line for LNG and other industrial jobs. She has also promised to ensure that people in the province who want to work, can. The new plan is expected to emphasize greater access to training for groups that are under-represented in the work force, including First Nations and people with disabilities.

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