A top education rep is asking what will happen if British Columbia’s (B.C.’s) burgeoning liquefied natural gas (LNG) sector implodes in the way the province’s coal sector burst during the 1980s, leaving freshly-graduated students in the lurch.
The question surfaces as B.C. begins to retool its education funding and attempt to fill a skilled worker shortage that could jeopardize the province’s ability to capitalize on some 37 trillion cubic metres of untapped natural gas resources.
“If they’re so confident, you borrow now, then profit later, like companies do,” Robert Clift, executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of British Columbia (CUFA/BC), told EcoLog News. “Would a business person invest on the basis of this plan? It’s shaky.”
Clift, 49, studied science and mathematics in university — somewhat in line with his family’s background in mechanics — but he shifted gears, something many students may do themselves, he said. “I would rather trust a student’s instincts than the government’s instincts,” said Clift.
To fill the one million industry job openings expected by 2022, B.C officials announced a “re-engineering” of the province’s education system on April 29, 2014. The strategy shifts education funding to resources that could help meet labour market priorities. Initially, B.C. wants to shift $160 million of its $7.5 billion 2014 education budget towards the re-engineering strategy, and then within four years, raise it to $400 million annually. The other key ingredient in the plan is to use 25 per cent of operating grant money that goes to post-secondary institutions for in-demand job training, up from the current 10 per cent.
B.C.’s Accelerated Credit Enrolment in Industry Training program that gives students completion and apprenticeship program credits to take trades training will also be doubled to 5,000 spaces in the next two years, announced B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender.
“We’ll all benefit as more of today’s students pursue rewarding skilled trades and technology careers that will also help us better meet the labour needs of a growing and increasingly prosperous British Columbia,” said Fassbender, as he introduced the strategy document B.C.’s Skills for Jobs Blueprint: Re-engineering Education and Training.
But Clift sees the B.C. strategy as a “narrow view”, considering there hasn’t been a single shovel in the ground for the LNG industry, and that the new strategy involves no 'new' money. He recalls the Northeast Coal Development Project that gained momentum in the early 1980s, yet later failed as the global price of coal plummeted. The massive hiring blitz eventually turned to heavy layoffs.
Officials estimate that peak construction for the LNG sector in 2018 will require some 58,700 workers. But even if the LNG industry does succeed, with its aim of tapping into the Asian export market, Clift wonders where all the welders and similar tradespeople will be left following the initial construction boom. For that matter, he said, the LNG industry will also require university graduates to run departments like finance, human resources.
“Government needs to think ahead. That’s what we do in universities,” said Clift.
Clift said it’s a bold move to re-engineer education based on market projections, an area where he believes government has long proven itself ineffective.
One interpretation of the re-engineering announcement is it that it could act as a signal to investors and LNG proponents that B.C. is serious about having skilled workers ready. As the announcement was made, industry was quick to praise the government’s move.
“Pacific NorthWest LNG will require skilled workers for construction and operations of our proposed facility,” announced Greg Kist, president at Pacific NorthWest LNG, in an April 29, 2014 statement. “Time is of the essence, and we’re encouraged by the positive and meaningful steps being made by the province of B.C. to expedite and enhance access to skills training for British Columbians who want to take part in the generational careers that projects like ours present,” Kist added.
This news item originally appeared in EcoLog News. To learn how to subscribe, visit www.ecolog.com