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Students in the automotive collision and refinishing program at Vancouver Community College restore a vintage truck.

Vancouver Community College

Hal Hobenshield looks at the job board for the program he oversees at Northern Lights College's Dawson Creek campus and counts more postings than he has students.

Mr. Hobenshield, who is chair of aircraft maintenance engineering at Northern Lights College – which serves northern British Columbia through campuses in Dawson Creek, Chetwynd, Fort Nelson, Fort St. John and Tumbler Ridge, and access centres in Atlin and Dease Lake – says it's not surprising that practically every one of his students who wants a job gets one.

"Our students are in high demand," says Mr. Hobenshield. "Employers are coming right here for job interviews, and right now more than 50 per cent of our graduating students already have solid job offers."

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Mr. Hobenshield's students have something that, according to researchers and economists, is becoming an increasingly precious commodity in B.C. and in the rest of Canada: advanced skills. As the province's industry landscape shifts towards the manufacturing, construction and services sectors, and as hundreds of thousands of British Columbians retire from the workforce, employers over the next decade will be left scrambling to fill jobs that require specialized, post-secondary training.

The B.C. government estimates more than 1.2 million job openings over the next decade. Of these openings, more than 481,000 – or about 43 per cent – will be technical, paraprofessional and skilled occupations requiring a college education or trade certificate. By comparison, professional and managerial occupations will account for 35 per cent of job openings, while intermediate and clerical roles will account for about 19 per cent.

"We are facing a serious discrepancy between what employers need and the skills people have," says Randall Heidt, executive director of external relations at the College of New Caledonia (CNC) in Prince George, B.C. "The big challenge for British Columbia today is, how do we close that skills gap?"

The province's colleges – whose programs are focused on skills training to match the needs of industry – are responding to this challenge through a wide range of actions and initiatives.

CNC, for one, has a long list of initiatives, including a President's Industry Council to facilitate communication with the province's industries, partnerships with local businesses to sponsor programs and work directly with students, and an innovative Career Technical Centre that allows 11th- and 12th-grade students to earn two-for-one credits in high school and in a trade in college at the same time.

This year, CNC also began reaching out to elementary and junior high school students. "We're looking to introduce kids to the trades at an earlier age, instead of waiting until high school when they've already chosen their streams," says Mr. Heidt.

CNC isn't the only B.C. college working to close the skills gap. Last December, Okanagan College partnered with Discover Trades BC, a provincial government initiative, to host a conference for parents, school counsellors and teachers. The college was particularly interested in meeting with parents, many of whom tend to nudge their kids towards university education over skilled trades training.

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The province's colleges are also addressing barriers to education, such as lack of access to post-secondary education in remote locations. Northern Lights College, for example, offers a teacher education program – called the Alaska Highway Consortium on Teacher Education (AHCOTE) – in partnership with Simon Fraser University and the University of Northern British Columbia.

"The mission of the program is to train teachers in the north for the north, and the unique thing is it allows local residents to do their training here," says Steve Roe, dean of academic and vocational programs at Northern Lights. "Today so many teachers in the region are AHCOTE graduates."

Whether it's training teachers or industrial mechanics, British Columbia needs to do everything it can now to arm its current and future workforce with the skills employers need, points out Dr. Roe.

"This is where colleges can really play a critical role," he says, "and we're taking action."

ACCC is the national and international voice of Canada's publicly funded colleges, institutes and polytechnics, working with industry and social sectors to train 1.5 million learners of all ages and backgrounds at campuses serving over 3,000 urban, rural and remote communities across the country and in 29 countries around the world.

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