In the month of October, with almost 2,000 people working to build the Site C dam, a total of 18 apprentices were getting on-the-job trades training on the construction site of British Columbia's most expensive public-infrastructure project in history.
"That's pathetic," Premier John Horgan said in an interview.
While the B.C. NDP government is taking a pounding from its environmental wing over its decision to finish the dam, those in the party's labour camp are quietly celebrating that the remainder of the $10.7-billion is to be built under a new model that will change the face of the work force.
It means "low bid" is no longer BC Hydro's pre-eminent directive.
When he announced his grudging decision to carry on with construction of Site C on Dec. 11, Mr. Horgan promised to revamp the terms of the project. The alterations are designed to ease the sting for the many New Democrats – including a large number in his cabinet – who opposed the dam because of its environmental, agricultural and First Nations impacts.
Part of Mr. Horgan's Site C turnaround plan is the promise of new "community benefit agreements" that will support local communities, as well as increase the number of apprentices and First Nations workers hired onto the project.
"We need to make sure we are training the next generation of skilled workers. We need to make sure we are including diverse groups, Indigenous people, women and others in these projects," Mr. Horgan said in a recent interview.
The NDP announced a review of Site C shortly after forming government in July, but this month concluded that the project is too far along to cancel.
Lana Popham, Minister of Agriculture, was one of several cabinet ministers who had campaigned against the project while in opposition. On her Facebook page, she explained that "our heartbreaking decision on Site C" was necessary, but "I am with so many of you in grieving the loss of agricultural land in the flood zone of Site C."
The new terms for the project include increased and independent oversight of the project and a fund, to come out of revenues from the completed project, for agriculture.
But the labour changes that are now being proposed can be traced back to a long-standing commitment to the trade-union movement that had been largely frozen out during the 16 years of Liberal government.
The target for trades apprentices on Site C has not been set yet, but it is likely to be 25 per cent of the work force over the span of four years.
That's the target recommended by the BC Federation of Labour and the BC Building Trades, and Mr. Horgan has already committed to ensure that public capital projects – building roads, schools, and hospitals – will be done under labour agreements that will ensure apprenticeship training quotas and job opportunities for under-represented groups in the construction work force.
Tom Sigurdson, head of the BC Building Trades, battled with the former Liberal government over Site C when the Crown-owned utility, BC Hydro, announced it intended to abandon the organized-labour model that has been used on its major projects for five decades.
Once the NDP took power, Mr. Sigurdson set to work to persuade the new government to carry on with the project – but to restore the old labour model. He trod carefully, knowing that opposition to the project within the NDP was strong.
"I thought it was the right decision but I wasn't overjoyed," he said in an interview last week after the decision was announced. "My response was relief, and now let's get on with building it properly. I know it was a difficult decision."
Apprenticeships are key to trades training – a skilled-trades worker typically earns his or her Red Seal certification after four or five years of training in school and on the job.
The skilled-trades work force is aging and without new trades people working their way up now, Mr. Sigurdson said, British Columbia will find it increasingly difficult to attract investment.
"We are going to face a severe skills shortage in five years, and if we don't have opportunities for apprentices today, there is going to be an economic price to be paid – industry won't invest if we lack a skilled work force down the road."
But it's not clear how quickly the new rules will be brought in.
Government officials say the existing contracts will not be changed – it is only new contracts that will have mandatory requirements for apprentices. However, the largest contract – the main civil works – has been awarded and bids are already in for the second-largest contract – for the spillway and generating station. BC Hydro is poised to announce its preferred proponent. It's getting late in the game to change the requirements.