The Skills to Pay the Bills

July 23, 2013
Tom Syer

BC’s post secondary education system is a source of both pride and frustration; thinking about the system can prompt a sense of either optimism or pessimism about the future. On the positive side, BC has a great mix of world class research universities and regionally diverse colleges and technical institutes among today’s 25 publicly-funded post-secondary institutions. The University of BC is consistently ranked in the top 30 in the world (of over 17,000 universities), and BC consistently compares favourably among Canadian institutions on key metrics that measure the quality and effectiveness of its universities. Overall, our post-secondary system has many attractive and in some cases even world-class attributes.

The frustrations with the system stem from two core concerns: (1) accessibility challenges, and (2) a serious gap between labour market needs and post-secondary system outputs. The accessibility challenge is multi-pronged – rising entry standards, cost escalation/flat funding, over subscribed programs/inflexible funding allocations – all of which combine to constrain access to post-secondary education in general, and to certain programs that are in high-demand specifically.

The output gap is based on an emerging body of evidence suggesting that the needs of the labour market in some important sectors of the economy are not being adequately met by the publicly supported education/training system (understanding that business clearly has a role to play as well). While much has been written about shortages of skilled trades people, particularly given the strong pull effect from the economic growth occurring in Alberta and Saskatchewan, there is also an output gap affecting the ‘creative’ sector or the economy – the computer scientists, engineers, industrial designers, animators, etc., who are fueling and fueled by the evolving technology revolution.

In a provocative and fact-filled piece recently appearing in the Financial Post, Ryan Holmes, CEO of rapidly growing HooteSuite, , summarizes the challenges of growing his Vancouver based high tech firm amid the talent shortages affecting the sector. Among other key facts, Holmes cites James Knight, president and CEO of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges, who has suggested that in a decade’s time there will be a staggering 1.5 million jobs unfilled in Canada, including many skilled positions.

Back to BC, the province faces a ‘double down’ scenario, as the need for a new generation of skilled trades people to replace departing baby boomers is compounded by a potential explosion of skilled labour demand given ongoing natural resource development and the probable emergence of a brand new industrial sector – Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). LNG development is a game changing opportunity that requires considerable advance planning on a scale that BC has not previously confronted.

To reap the full benefits stemming from LNG development, there is a need for discussion and coordination with LNG developers. Much work is already under way in this regard, but in order to maximize the downstream and long term labour market benefits of building a competitive, world-scale LNG industry in BC, it’s time for more comprehensive engagement among government, LNG proponents and our post-secondary institutions.

As the provincial government moves forward to implement a new mandate and renew its ‘Jobs Plan’, the skills agenda clearly will be front and centre. As it currently stands, there is a formidable challenge ahead to build a strong, opportunity-driven post secondary system that ensures that the core strengths of the current system are leveraged, rather than undermined or disassembled. Adding more flexibility and (further) innovation into the province’s university/college system will be a key part of the path forward in the years ahead.

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