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B.C. to make job skills main focus of education system

Students study at the University of the Fraser Valley in Chilliwack, B.C., on March 20, 2014.

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia is shifting hundreds of millions in education dollars to force colleges and universities to produce skilled tradespeople for an expected construction boom over the next decade.

The driving force behind the changes is the province's quest for a new liquefied natural gas industry.

Industry wants the province to address the threat of a skilled labour shortage before companies make final investment decisions. The province estimates it will land $175-billion in new investment over the next decade if it can secure five LNG plants.

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The "skills for jobs" plan announced Tuesday will redirect $160-million this year within

in the province's education budget to provide more

training for high-demand occupations.

By the fourth year, it means $400-million more annually for trades training.

None of the changes, which will retool the entire education sector from primary school to apprenticeship programs, come with new funding, so resources will be taken from other segments of the education system.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender said public school students will continue to receive arts and sciences instruction, but trades options will take on a sharper focus.

"We celebrate the poets. We also celebrate the welders, the carpenters and the pipefitters," Mr. Fassbender said.

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Government officials stressed the sweeping changes are not just about the potential LNG industry. There are dozens of major projects including pipelines and new mines on the books for northern B.C. in the next decade, but cost overruns and project delays loom if the province can't attract more welders, gas fitters, heavy-equipment operators and other skilled workers.

While the president of the B.C. Institute of Technology, Kathy Kinloch, was at Tuesday's announcement outside the legislature to embrace the changes, the presidents of the province's universities were notably absent. Instead they responded with a cautiously worded statement issued by the the Research Universities' Council of British Columbia.

"With experts warning of a growing skills gap, B.C.'s universities are providing young British Columbians with skills that are valued by employers in today's economy – a combination of practical, critical-thinking and analytical tools that give young people a tremendous advantage in a fast-changing job market," said Stephen Toope, chair of the council and president of the University of British Columbia, in the statement.

Even with the changes announced on Tuesday, the province expects it will still need to bring in workers from across Canada and from outside the country in some trades. Not only will contractors have to boost current labour rates, but the province will need to provide incentives to lure back workers who have left the province to take more lucrative jobs in Alberta.

Alberta is well ahead of B.C. in elevating its technical training campuses to meet the needs of the burgeoning resource sector. The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) Polytechnic in Calgary last year earned the title of the top research college in Canada, and in its last budget the Alberta government promised a $32.5-million increase in provincial funding to create 2,000 new spaces for high-demand programs such as engineering, environmental science and occupational therapy.

B.C. Labour Minister Shirley Bond said her government will now be guided by constantly updated labour market data to shape an education system that ensures graduates leave school with marketable skills. Primary school students will be exposed to more hands-on learning, while high school students will have greater access to trades training programs. And postsecondary students will have more access to financial assistance if they choose studies in high-demand occupations.

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At the announcement, behind B.C. Education Minister Amrik Virk on the lawns of the legislature, a model for the new education system was on display.

The acrid smoke from a welding torch tinged the air inside Mike Hassel's mobile shop class. For five years, he has hauled his trailer around the province, giving students an opportunity to try out a range of trades skills – millwright, plumber, welder, electrician. "We deliver the real deal," he said.

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About the Authors
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

Banking Reporter

James Bradshaw is banking reporter for the Report on Business. He covered media from 2014 to 2016, and higher education from 2010 to 2014. Prior to that, he worked as a cultural reporter for Globe Arts, and has written for both the Toronto section and the editorial page. More

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