B.C. falling behind in skills training, says NDP MLA for Chilliwack-Hope

Chilliwack-Hope MLA Gwen O’Mahony blames shortage on the BC Liberals. But president of the BC Construction Association, disagrees.

The B.C. construction industry has gone to California and Ireland to recruit skilled workers because of the shortage of skilled workers here, says Chilliwack-Hope MLA Gwen O’Mahony, NDP critic for skills training.

“We don’t have those skilled workers ready because beginning in 2004, the Liberals dismantled B.C.’s trades training and apprenticeship system,” she said.

But Manley McLachlan, president of the BC Construction Association, disagrees.

“The shortage of workers is not the result of anything the current government could have done on the training side,” he said. “It’s not a training issue.”

But there is a “built-in skills gap,” he said, as some 38,000 skilled workers in B.C. will be retiring in the next few years.

“That’s where the demand is coming from,” he said.

McLachlan confirmed the industry has gone to job fairs in Indio, California and Dublin, Ireland because of the demand for workers with proven skills specific to the resource sector.

But he said the recruitment drive was a “pre-emptive” move to head off the looming retirements of skilled workers who would otherwise be passing on their skills to new workers.

If three of seven liquid natural gas projects in northern B.C. go forward, he said, “that will result in 10,000 construction jobs by 2017” and an additional 9,000 on the operational side to run the new plants.

And those new workers will need the construction of new houses, schools and malls, he said.

Foreign workers were sought only after all avenues were exhausted to find Canadians for the jobs, according to a BCCA news release.

“We are not taking away jobs from people here at home,” Abigail Fulton, BCCA vice-president, said in the release.

“We’re looking for very specific skills and experience,” she said. “There’s an immediate shortage and we expect that to continue.”

O’Mahony said she didn’t entirely disagree with McLachlan, that immigration will be a factor in filling the shortage of skilled workers in B.C.

“We are definitely going to have to look to immigration, I’m not entirely disagreeing,” she said. “But in the last 10 years, with the Liberals in charge of skills training, I think the numbers show they’ve fallen short of providing crucial opportunities right here in B.C.”

“The numbers tell me there is an available pool of workers who would benefit from a skills training plan that made sense, right here in our own province,” O’Mahony said.

The total unemployed in B.C. in 2009 was 6.8 per cent or 167,500 and youth unemployment in the same year was 12.2 per cent or 43,300, she said.

“We know the rates are higher now,” she said.

And there are many others working at minimum wage jobs, she said, “who would like to obtain employment that pays better — and that’s exactly what they would find in the trades.”

“Despite their ‘jobs plan’ the Liberals have put no new money into skills training in the 2012 budget,” O’Mahony said.

“It’s no surprise that apprenticeship completion rates have fallen from 43 to 37 per cent from 2009/10 to 2011/12,” she said.

“This year is on track to be even worse, at just 35 per cent to date,” she said.

O’Mahony said New Democrats have a plan to improve access to post-secondary education and trades training by offering $100 million in needs-based, non-repayable student grants.

“It’s hard to take the BC Liberal government seriously when they can find millions for pre-election style job plan ads, but nothing for apprenticeship and skills training programs,” she said.

rfreeman@theprogress.com

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