The B.C. government is poised to embrace an aggressive apprenticeship program that would require training opportunities for publicly funded construction projects as part of an effort to soothe worries from prospective investors in liquefied natural gas.
Premier Christy Clark told a news conference on Thursday she has accepted all of the recommendations contained in a report on LNG skills training – a document produced by what has been described as the "four pillars" of the jobs program: industry, trade unions, government and First Nations.
"We have a plan to grow our economy," Ms. Clark said, one that revolves around landing a lucrative LNG industry. "We are going to make sure the work force is there."
There are 13 proposals for LNG plants in British Columbia on the books, but investors have pointed to a looming skills shortage as one of their chief concerns to be addressed before any final investment decisions are made. In Australia, LNG projects have faced major delays and cost overruns because of wage inflation as the producers battled to attract a limited pool of skilled workers. Australia is regarded as B.C.'s chief rival for LNG investment dollars.
A key recommendation of the B.C. LNG jobs plan is to aim to have 25 per cent of the trades jobs on LNG projects filled by apprentices, and for the province to consider imposing a minimum number of apprentices on public infrastructure projects to help produce new qualified journeymen by the time LNG projects are ready to break ground.
B.C. officials say it would likely make the province the first jurisdiction in Canada to embrace such a requirement, but the Premier is leaning toward the proposal.
The report of the working group released Thursday warns that competition for skilled labourers in B.C.'s north will be heavy: "This is a key risk factor for the LNG proponents," it states, adding that there is a significant gap in training opportunities today.
Ms. Clark vowed that better training opportunities will be offered "immediately" and that will involve "re-engineering" the education system from high school to postsecondary. "One of the terrific legacies of these projects will be a highly skilled, highly qualified work force in British Columbia that will attract more investment," she said.
The report notes that between 2013 and 2023, there are 47 major projects – mines, dams, pipelines and more – planned across B.C. that are each worth more than $500-million. The peak years of labour demand begin as early as 2016. Although some of those jobs are destined to be filled by temporary foreign workers, Ms. Clark said her objective is to ensure as many British Columbians as possible are qualified to benefit.
The apprenticeship requirement has been promoted by the B.C. Federation of Labour's Jim Sinclair, who is part of the working group. Mr. Sinclair was beaming on Thursday as the Premier signalled she is willing to embrace the requirement. Her government is expected to complete a study on the proposal within a few weeks.
Mr. Sinclair said his apprenticeship bid has won the support of industry because it is seen as part of the solution to the trades training concerns. "We don't want to [just] build bridges, we want to build B.C. too," Mr. Sinclair said. He argued that even if the apprenticeship requirement increases the cost of building B.C. infrastructure, it is money that will have to be spent somewhere to provide training opportunities.
The objective is to ensure workers have skills that can be transferred to different projects, creating a mobile work force that can move from a pipeline project to an LNG export terminal or construction of a new mine. The training programs will need to attract high-school students and also provide opportunities for First Nations, Ms. Clark said.