Political parties put emphasis on skills training

Number of students enrolled in the trades at Okanagan College has declined by 638 students to 2,044 over the past three years

Citing an expected future labour shortage, the election platforms for B.C.’s two main political parties place heavy emphasis on skills training to prepare workers to fill those jobs, yet students don’t seem to be going along with the plan.

Between 2008-09 and 2011-12, the number of B.C. students enrolled in a trades program declined by 4,095 to 38,755, according to statistics from the Ministry of Advanced Education.

Mirroring that trend, statistics from Okanagan College show its trades head-count drop by 638 to 2,044 over the same period.

“For us, the decrease has been in the construction trades,” explained John Haller, the college’s dean of trades.

“Because the Okanagan construction industry has slowed down, that’s drastically affected the number of apprentices going to school.”

He added, though, that the college has seen an increase in the number of students attending foundational programs that provide entry-level job skills.

“So even though the numbers appear to be less, the volume of work the college is doing is the same,” he said.

Dick Cannings, the NDP candidate for the Penticton riding, said the shortage of students is an affordability issue for which his party has a solution.

“I’ve talked to local workers who are working at pretty much minimum wage, low-income workers who really want to get out of that rut and into more skilled jobs, and they just can’t afford to do it,” he said.

It’s those people the NDP has in mind with a plan to establish a program worth $100 million annually to provide needs-based, non-repayable grants to post-secondary students.

“That will give (students) that chance to get into these training programs (and) get the skills and get good jobs,” Cannings said, adding the program would be funded by reinstating a tax on banks.

The NDP skills training platform also calls for a one-time, $20-million contribution to a scholarship fund, plus other measures to increase the number of spaces in skills training programs and improve completion rates and times.

By contrast, the Liberal platform focuses mainly on what the party has already done for skills training while in government, including the creation of the Industry Training Authority, which it claims helped double the number of registered apprentices in B.C. to 33,000 in the 10 years leading up to 2011-12.

The party platform also outlines four measures to help expand and enhance vocational training paths in B.C. high schools.

Dan Ashton, the Liberal candidate for Penticton, said the sooner kids start thinking about their futures, the better.

“I’m a firm believer that by Grade 10 — and Europe does this already — you swing over and you can start taking a look (and decide) do I go trade and technical or do I go academic? By the time you graduate, you have two years of a trade underneath your belt,” Ashton said.

As for reversing the decline in the number of trades students, Ashton said the solution shouldn’t include throwing money at the problem with new grant programs.

“Education isn’t free. And for me, I was raised the old-fashioned way: My parents helped me with my education.”

Instead, he continued, the government should focus on building a strong economy to make sure there are jobs available close to home, which will entice students into the skilled trades.

“Why do people go into trades if there’s no jobs? So what we have to do is ensure these jobs keep on going,” Ashton said.

“Otherwise, you’re training these workers and sending them to Alberta.”