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Andrew Petter is the President and Vice-Chancellor of Simon Fraser University.

From the pulp-and-paper sector to mining and construction, business in British Columbia is relying on a shrinking pool of workers from across Canada and around the world to meet the need for skilled labour.

But the crisis hasn't even started, according to a labour-market study to be released Tuesday from B.C.'s research universities. The report calculates that the tipping point – where the number of jobs in B.C. will exceed the number of qualified workers – is just three years away.

"Our overall objective is to alert British Columbians of the fundamental challenge we are facing in the economy," Stephen Toope, president of the University of British Columbia, said in an interview. At a time when the provincial government is trimming spending on advanced education, he said time is short to respond to the pending shortfall. "We hope the government will pay close attention to that. … We are in trouble."

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The study is being released just three weeks before the B.C. Liberal government unveils its pre-election budget – a fiscal plan that is expected to leave little room for the kind of expanded postsecondary system that the heads of the province's six research universities are calling for.

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. The university study estimates that only a third of the job postings can be filled through immigration or in-migration from other parts of Canada.

In an election campaign where skills training is expected to be in the spotlight, the Liberals have been touting their plan to help train workers for the kinds of jobs B.C. will offer. But last year, the provincial budget set out $50-million in cuts from the advanced education budget over two years.

Since then, the government has rolled out a skills and training action plan that promises to help connect British Columbians with job training in areas where skills are in demand. It also is designed to encourage students to look at the technical and trades occupations where shortages are emerging.

But Andrew Petter, president of Simon Fraser University, suggested the government's focus is too narrow.

"The skills and talent shortage is by no means limited to basic trades and skills," he said. "Over the next five years, those skills gaps for higher levels of training will be greatest – we are talking about economists, managers – the people who are going to help the economy to grow."

The use of Chinese migrant workers at a coal mine in northern British Columbia has attracted controversy, but Mr. Petter noted that the mining industry is already facing a much broader challenge in finding qualified engineers, geologists and machine operators. Court battles have dogged the Chinese mine workers. And bureaucratic backlogs have delayed skilled-immigrant applications.

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"This is an economic imperative for the province," Mr. Petter said. "We're not going to be able to build those new mines if we don't have the engineers."

The province's research universities have been calling for 11,000 new student spaces for university, college and trades training over the next four years. They also want more grants and scholarships, and better student loans, to make postsecondary education more accessible to British Columbians.

Bill Tam, president of the BC Technology Industry Association, said his industry is already hemmed in by the shortage of skilled labour – the lifeblood of the tech sector. "We are pretty much at full employment, and as we look ahead, we see a worrisome trend," he said in an interview. The shortages span the sector, from digital media, such as Vancouver-based HootSuite, to hardware companies like the security monitoring firm Avigilon, that can't keep up with demand.

Mr. Tam agreed the government's skills-training agenda is too narrow. "I hope there is a broader view of where the talent challenges are going to be in the future," he said. "We need the right balance. There continues to be a fundamental shift in the economy to greater knowledge-based sectors."

The study ranks B.C. eighth among the provinces for granting undergraduate degrees, well below the Canadian average. In the past, it has made up the deficit through in-migration, but fewer Canadians are now relocating to the province.

The report predicts that by the end of the decade, "approximately 18,800 jobs could go unfilled because too few British Columbians have the necessary training."

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