Connecting students with jobs

Teacher strike brings up debate on student debt, jobs and financial issues in the South Okanagan and B.C.

The noise of the teachers’ strike drowned out debate on the B.C. budget so thoroughly that one of Finance Minister Kevin Falcon’s more controversial ideas only made the news last week.

Reporters dubbed it “Welfare Air.” Falcon plans a pilot program to offer social assistance recipients training and airfare if they can line up a job in B.C.’s northern energy boomtowns. Workers are being imported to fill jobs there, while in Metro Vancouver and elsewhere the number of single employable people applying for social assistance is rising.

Much of oil and gas work is dirty and dangerous. These days most industrial jobs involve sophisticated electronics, and the technical skill level required is high. But there are entry-level jobs going begging, and relatively high pay is offered to fill positions in a short-staffed service sector in the Peace region.

NDP MLA Carole James, no stranger to northern B.C., dismissed Falcon’s plan as a stunt. There are unemployed people in the region who should be offered training before we start flying people up from Vancouver, James said.

Yet I repeatedly hear from northern employers that the labour shortage is real and growing.

The NDP warns that B.C. faces a future of “people without jobs, and jobs without people.” Mostly they blame the B.C. Liberals for removing apprenticeship programs from union control.

I spoke with James about post-secondary needs a couple of weeks ago. She mentioned NDP leader Adrian Dix’s signature policy to restore B.C. student grants, funded by a capital tax on financial institutions. She also agreed that part of the problem is young people taking post-secondary education that leads to fields with poor job prospects.

I suggested that if B.C. taxpayers are to increase their subsidy to post-secondary students, already worth about two thirds of their schooling costs, perhaps grants could be targeted to areas of pressing economic need.

To my surprise, James agreed that is worth considering. This is significant, not only because it is likely to be unpopular in the education establishment. There is a good chance that James, a former school trustee, will be B.C.’s education minister in 14 months.

After writing about the labour shortage last week, I was bombarded with messages from an irate Vancouver high school teacher who mocked the whole notion as corporate propaganda. No labour shortage exists, globally or in B.C., he claimed.  Rather, “capitalists” of the “one per cent” have tried to “vocationalize” public education for a century, but the “people” have always “resisted.”

Radical socialists aside, why would matching student aid to employment demand be unpopular with teachers?

Education Minister George Abbott offered a clue during the lengthy debate over ending the teachers’ strike. Abbott noted that for every three teachers coming out of B.C. universities, there is currently only one job available.

Certainly student debt is an issue worth discussing. And most would agree it’s easier to pay off loans if one can find a job in one’s field upon graduation. Should further subsidies go to soon-to-be-unemployed teachers? No.

Our education system trains too many people for what they want to do, rather than what the economy needs. And our economy definitely does not need more kids taught Marxist claptrap.

Further to that, a tax on banks will be popular with some of today’s students, who protested against capitalism in the occupy camps that will resume as the weather improves.

Others will examine the idea and conclude that financial institutions will recover the tax from customers, and perhaps find ways to get the job done with fewer employees.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and

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