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Area facing skills shortage

Community-wide efforts need to happen across the province to address the looming skilled labour shortage.

That’s the message that Kevin Evans, CEO of the Industry Training Authority – the Crown corporation that leads and co-ordinates B.C.’s skilled trades system – brought to a community dialogue on trades training at Vancouver Island University last week.

Evans said economic forecasters predict a provincewide shortage of workers in the skilled trades industries beginning in a couple of years based on the number of workers poised to retire and increased economic activity. He said institutions like VIU play a vital role in ensuring skilled jobs go to B.C. residents, but more employers need to hire and mentor apprentices – only one in five employers who hire skilled tradespeople also hire apprentices.

There also needs to be a shift in attitudes so students are encouraged to pursue trades careers – parents and youth have told the training authority there is a stigma attached to this type of work.

“Somehow they’re second-tier career choices or the consolation prize for those who didn’t get into university,” said Evans.

Three-quarters of job openings between now and 2020 will require some kind of post-secondary education and of those job openings, more than 40 per cent will be in the trades and technology sector, he said.

A rewarding and challenging career is available to those who do the training and are willing, in some fields, to go to where the work is, Evans added.

Byron Gallant, co-owner of B. Gallant Homes and president of the central Island branch of the Canadian Homebuilders Association, said it can be a challenge for construction companies to take on apprentices.

The cyclical nature of the industry means it is hard to guarantee full-time work for the four or five years of the apprenticeship, and then the apprentice leaves each year for more schooling.

On top of this, the company must have a ticketed journeyman on site to mentor the apprentice and the business could end up investing all of that time mentoring the apprentice only to have him or her move on after training is finished, he said.

Gallant’s company hires apprentices, depending on market conditions, and there are tax rebates, wage subsidies and other incentives for hiring apprentices, but he thinks many companies are not aware of this.

Fred MacDonald, VIU’s dean of trades and applied technology, said the university gives students as much training as possible before sending them out to apprenticeships, but then they need industry to step in.

He said the local employment market is more vibrant than expected given the economy – at least half of apprentices are training on the Island – but it can be hit and miss. If a young person is willing to travel a bit, there are some phenomenal opportunities – modern trades jobs have gotten more complex, more technology oriented and require critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

MacDonald said the province once had apprenticeship councillors in every community, who worked with institutions and industry to arrange training and look at employer needs, but those were abolished in 2003.

Evans said the authority plans to hire up to 15 “coaches” to support apprentices and help more of them complete their programs.

Susan Allen, CEO of the Greater Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber is worried about a skilled labour shortage not just in the trades sector, but all sectors where higher education is required.

She said about 30 per cent of business owners in Nanaimo plan to retire in the next 10 years and about 18 per cent want to finish in the next five years – or about one in six.

“We can see there’s a huge gap and a huge crisis coming,” said Allen.

The chamber is encouraging business owners to think about succession planning and to set an example, the chamber hired two masters of business administration students.

“It’s time away from our jobs, but we feel it’s our corporate responsibility,” said Allen.

Jamie Brennan, school board chairman, wants the district to develop stronger ties with the university so that there is a better bridge between public school and post-secondary education.

He also wants the district to inform families about options at a younger age and promote the trades more, perhaps creating a trades academy at one of the secondary schools.

“The demand [for skilled workers] is going to increase annually,” said Brennan.

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