$10M not enough to fix skills shortage

Jobs Minister Pat Bell has started to roll out commitments contained in Premier Christy Clark’s Botox-infused “Canada Starts Here” plan

Jobs Minister Pat Bell has started to roll out commitments contained in Premier Christy Clark’s Botox-infused “Canada Starts Here” jobs plan with a pledge of $10 million to develop new skills training programs to meet labour market needs.

Sadly, he’s missed the point. The B.C. apprenticeship system is broken and $10 million in “new” yet-to-be-determined programs is as helpful as spitting into the wind.

To their credit, Bell and Industrial Training Authority (ITA) CEO Kevin Evans delivered this week on a jobs plan promise to convene a “trades training conference” before the end of 2011. They brought together 100 industry players to explore what the industry training system must do to prepare for looming skill shortages. It was here that Bell played his $10-million card.

However, to get a sense of the scope of the apprenticeship crisis we need to go behind the scenes … into Evans’ ITA performance reports for the past two years.

In his 2009/10 service plan, the ITA boss reported that “recessions hurt apprenticeship and this one has been no exception. A key factor is the diminished ability of employers to provide the work-based training opportunities that are the backbone of apprenticeship training.”

Evans said system growth had come to an end for the time being. In fact, participation in apprenticeship programs fell five per cent in one year and employer sponsorships fell one per cent. Evans anticipated further declines.

Evans’ service plan report for 2010/11 contained more bad news. “(The year) presented a troubling combination of circumstances — a second year of downward training participation trends and a new labour market outlook confirming the potential for major and not-too-distant shortages of skilled labour.”

But the real calamity in B.C.’s apprenticeship training regime is buried deep in the bowels of Evans’ report in the section on program completion rates. They constitute a staggering admission of failure by a government that claims to be preparing our workers for the “opportunities of tomorrow.”

Here’s a sample: In 2010/11 an average of 70 per cent of joinery, carpentry and cooking apprentices failed to complete their training. Between 40 and 50 per cent of automotive, electrical, plumbing, refrigeration and sheet metal apprentices also failed to complete their studies.

Last week, I referred to labour market studies on the Island that tell us the workforce is in decline primarily because of our aging demographics. The ITA statistics leave little doubt that we are failing in the worst way when it comes to re-energizing the workforce.

Bradley Hartwig, a Faculty of Education professor at Simon Fraser University, reports that most apprentices are around 25. They have families, mortgages, etc., that accompany them when they’re seeking training. For them to pack up and go to Prince George, the Lower Mainland or anywhere else is a real hardship.

For starters, Hartwig suggests an online e-technology training system might meet the demands of industry better than place-based training programs.

Too often this government measures educational and training success by how many bums they can get in the seats. Now, we find they can’t even keep the seats warm. Unless there are radical system reforms, Bell’s $10 million will just buy more empty chairs. M

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