When Abigail Fulton of the B.C. Construction Association put out a call to high-school shop teachers late last year about what equipment they need to teach, the response was overwhelming.
"Oh, my goodness. Many, many of these shops haven't had upgrades since before the 1960s," she said. She has 89 applications in front of her from B.C. school teachers asking for almost $9-million in equipment. Now the association is launching a fundraising campaign to fulfill the requests.
B.C. shop classes need basics such as table saws, sanders and tool storage. The teachers also want the kind of equipment students would use in the real world of the trades: diagnostic systems, drill presses and industrial pneumatic staplers. The association is stepping in to fill a gap in education funding – one that seems so essential to the province's economic future that it is hard to bridge the government's jobs rhetoric with the reality of these needs.
The B.C. Liberal government's agenda revolves around the development of new mines, a liquefied natural gas industry and a massive new hydro-electric dam. It's all about jobs and tens of billions of dollars worth of investments in megaprojects.
But who is going to benefit from all that building?
"Most politicians, I think, don't really want to talk that much about the need for immigration and the need for temporary foreign workers," Mines Minister Bill Bennett told CBC Radio's Early Edition last month in his typically go-where-others-fear-to-tread fashion. "But I think we do the public a disservice by pretending that we can train enough Canadians to fill all these jobs."
Mr. Bennett told the Early Edition's Rick Cluff the school system must change. "We need to stop graduating people that are trained to do things whose fields are already full. That's going to be difficult, because the schools are going to have to shift gears. They're going to have to start training less of a certain type of graduate and more of another kind of graduate. You know, they'll have to gear up with equipment, and they'll have to hire new teachers and professors, and we're going to have to, I think, put our foot down as a province and make that happen."
Mike Howard is a high school shop teacher in Revelstoke, and heads the B.C. Technology Education Association, an arm of the B.C. Teachers' Federation. He would like that shift to happen, but does not see the genuine political will to invest.
"It's cheaper for the government to bring in someone from overseas than it is to train people here," Mr. Howard said. But it is a shortsighted approach, he argues. His mission is to give students a taste for the trades instead of pushing them solely into the academic stream. "We want these kids to go into the trades, they need to be exposed to them starting in Grade 6, 7." But he does not see the government talk about skills training trickling down to the classroom.
Which might explain why a skills shortage is looming. These days, just one in 32 students will head into a trades vocation from high school.
Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the B.C. Building and Construction Trades Council, made headlines last fall as one of the senior union leaders who pledged to work with Premier Christy Clark to develop a strategy to train B.C. workers for the hoped-for LNG boom.
An interim report has been sent to Jobs Minister Shirley Bond. Mr. Sigurdson said much work is still to be done. One suggestion is to schedule major projects in succession, but none of the proponents wants to be second in line, waiting for crews.
"We think with one LNG plant starting perhaps in 2017, we wouldn't have too much difficulty to crew up all the work. With two plants, it will be a much more significant challenge," he said. "If it is three, God help us."
But the province could do some things better, he offers. Yes, elevated training in schools. He also proposes publicly funded construction projects have apprentices on site.
Will the B.C. Liberals accept advice from their new allies in the trade unions? The answer is just weeks away, as the government is expected to offer a solution to the skills shortage in the legislative session that begins this week.