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In thaw with unions, Clark open to reviving apprenticeship program

B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s emphasis on skills training is helping her find common ground with some of the province’s unions.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Premier Christy Clark's government is looking at restoring a requirement for apprenticeship training on publicly funded construction projects – a measure that had been abandoned after the New Democratic Party lost power in the province almost 13 years ago.

Ms. Clark emerged from a meeting with public- and private-sector labour leaders on Wednesday afternoon to say she is open to the labour proposal – so long as it won't add to construction costs.

"It certainly would leave a legacy of apprentices after the projects are completed," she told reporters as Jim Sinclair, head of the B.C. Federation of Labour, stood at her side. "We are going to spend a bit of time examining that, looking at the business case. … If it is not going to make publicly funded projects more expensive for taxpayers, then it's certainly something we'll think about doing."

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The meeting is part of a thaw between organized labour and the B.C. Liberal government, driven by Ms. Clark's skills-training agenda.

Mr. Sinclair, who has not set foot in the Premier's office since the NDP were last in power, assured the Premier that boosting apprenticeship opportunities as the province grapples with a looming skills shortage would pay off for British Columbia.

"I tell you, Premier, if it costs slightly more on a $2-billion project to turn out 200 apprentices and give them their journey tickets so they can go out and build the province," he said. "I think British Columbians would be happy to pay a fraction more for that project to make sure we don't just build a bridge, we build British Columbia for tomorrow."

The meeting touched on the government's plan, expected to be released later this month, to assure prospective developers of liquefied natural gas that it can provide a skilled work force to build multibillion-dollar pipelines, processing plants and export terminals.

But the skills shortage is already straining development in B.C.'s booming north. Rio Tinto Alcan's smelter upgrade in Kitimat is pulling in workers from across Canada and the United States – that is just one project in a town that is expected to be the centre for an LNG industry.

The company's $3.3-billion modernization and expansion of the Alcan smelter has already run over budget as it rounds up workers to complete the work. There are 2,400 construction workers on site, with another 600 expected to arrive in the next few months.

Despite a program that gives locals first crack at the jobs, only 1,100 of the workers are from northern British Columbia. Almost 400 are from outside Canada.

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B.C. Building Trades Council president Lee Loftus said Wednesday that carpenters and iron workers are in short supply in Canada. "It's nothing we can't handle at this point."

The province is projecting that it will secure at least three LNG plants of the dozen proposals currently on the table. In addition to the construction of large, complex processing facilities, there would also be work building marine terminals and pipelines to get natural gas from northeast B.C. to the coast.

Fear of a labour shortage that could drive up construction costs is one of the key concerns from prospective LNG investors, leading to an unusual collaboration between the B.C. Liberal government and the trade-union movement to map out a strategy to meet labour demands.

Mr. Loftus said B.C. trade unions have reached out to other unions across Canada and in the U.S. to line up skilled trades workers in the event that any LNG projects are given a green light.

"We have given the proponents some assurances that as long as you don't schedule these all at once, we can provide you with the labour you need," he said.

"But if you schedule these all at once, there will be a worldwide shortage of the skills you need to construct a complex project like a LNG facility." However, no agreement has been reached on staging the construction of any competing LNG plants. "Everybody wants to go first, of course."

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