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The provincial government is rethinking how it spends its $7.5 billion in post-secondary education and training funding to meet the needs of an LNG-fuelled northern boom

On April 29, Premier Christy Clark unveiled the provincial government’s “Skills for Jobs” blueprint: a multi-year funding strategy that aims to re-engineer the province’s education system, putting more students on a path toward secure employment. By 2017-18, the government projects it will have earmarked 25 per cent of the $1.9 billion it contributes annually to post-secondary institution operating budgets for programs that lead to high-demand occupations. Over the next decade, $3 billion will be redirected to such programs, according to Shirley Bond, B.C.’s minister of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training.

The key driver behind this change: growing workforce demands presented from the $175 billion in LNG-related projects—including thousands of wells, hundreds of kilometres of pipelines and a dozen export terminals—slated for B.C.’s north. According to projections from the B.C. Natural Gas Workforce Strategy Committee, an industry and government round table, the plants proposed by Shell, Petronas, Korea Gas and others will create 58,700 direct and indirect positions at peak construction in 2017 and 23,800 permanent direct and indirect positions. If things don’t change, the province could face a shortage of workers in positions critical to the green lighting of these projects, including boilermakers, welders, pipefitters and certified construction workers.

That LNG-driven demand will compound what has become a province-wide skilled-labour shortage. The construction industry, for example, will face a labour-supply gap of 30,500 workers by 2021, as the number of new entrants will be outpaced by retirements and the demands of increased economic activity. In some sectors, the number of job openings is predicted to exceed the number of qualified workers as early as 2016, according to the province’s labour market forecast.

Many industry observers view the province’s new blueprint as an important step in addressing that shortage. “I don’t think I’d be exaggerating if I said I think it’s one of the most extensive human-capital public-policy reforms in the province’s history,” says Kerry Jothen, a private human-capital consultant on several LNG projects and the former CEO of the Industry Training and Apprenticeship Commission (ITAC), from 1997 to 2001. “Re-engineering and revolutionizing might be hyperbole, but that’s the kind of language one uses when you are talking about reform. This is not tinkering around the edges.”

In conjunction with changes to the K-to-12 system and an overhaul of the Industry Training Authority, ITAC’s successor, the most significant thrust of the blueprint will be closer oversight of how the province’s public colleges and universities allocate their budget.

The “high-demand” occupations in the new blueprint will be determined by the Labour Market Priorities Board, a sub-agency led by Bond’s ministry that will analyze labour market information (with input from the private sector) and create forecasts for specific occupations in both the short and long term. Post-secondary institutions will be expected to develop programs based on those forecasts and enroll students in those programs. If they don’t, they face the threat of losing a portion of their provincial funding.

“We want to make sure that when students and their families sit down to make decisions, they’ll have access to the best information possible,” says Bond.

She insists that the blueprint will affect only a fraction of the $7.5 billion total that the government spends on higher- education training.

Post-secondary institutions that have a high proportion of market-friendly programs—the kind that the government will be directing more money to—are largely satisfied with the change.

“The bottom line of the government’s plan is that funding for post-secondary institutions will be based on labour market information and workforce targets, and that institutions will be held accountable to achieving results,” said Eric Davis, provost of the University of the Fraser Valley, speaking to the school’s board in May.

UFV, Kwantlen Polytechnic University and other largely vocational schools already have programs that are understood to qualify as in-demand—trades, health-care-related programs and applied sciences—while large research universities, like UBC and SFU, depend less than their peers on the province for operating funds. But for colleges with fewer trades and professional programs, like Capilano University, Douglas College and Langara, the new funding model will be “more difficult, no question,” says Salvador Ferreras, provost of Kwantlen.

B.C. is tackling a conundrum faced by governments across the developed world: how do you align the supply of skilled, educated workers with the demands of the labour market years into the future? Unlike the government’s 2006-07 budget—the last major skills- training funding push, which allocated $400 million toward skills training, much of it new spending—the 2014 blueprint promises no new money. The difference, according to Bond, will be the increased use of labour market data, from more sources, in the decision-making process.

“Everybody’s struggling with connecting education and training to labour market needs,” says consultant Jothen. “And since no other jurisdictions have such a target, B.C. is way ahead in reforming post-secondary education to meet the demands of high-growth industries and occupations.”

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