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Expended education is key to filling high-demand trades professions

B.C. jobs minister says it is crucial to allow more opportunities for women, Indigenous people, people of colour and people with disabilities to enter the trades.

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The story of B.C.’s labour shortage is told through help wanted signs in store windows, delayed construction projects, supply chain disruptions and understaffed emergency rooms. Experts say things like the pandemic, the aging population and inflation have exacerbated the shortage of workers with no end in sight.

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While solutions include immigration, child care, and better pay, a key one is education and ensuring students have the opportunities to train in the sectors most desperate for them.

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Part of that, say teachers, students and B.C.’s jobs minister, is to better highlight the opportunities available in the trades and reframe the narrative that a university education is the only route to a well-paying career.

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Guilano Verdicchio, 27, went to the University of Victoria to study history after high school in 2013. After two years, he dropped out and worked in coffee shops, grocery stores and restaurants, not finding his career calling.

“From a pretty young age, you’re told that your next step after high school should be university or something like that, just because that’s where opportunity comes from,” he said.

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In 2018, Verdicchio returned to UVic to finish his degree. After he graduated in April, he enrolled in the six-month carpentry program at Camosun College in Victoria, enticed by the huge demand for carpenters.

“There definitely seems to be the demand,” he said. “Right now, the skills that I’m gaining, I think they’re setting me up for a bright future.”

Al Van Akker, chair of Camosun’s architectural trades and carpentry program, said he gets at least one or two calls a week from contractors and builders looking for students to hire. Many are in apprentice programs and already attached to a company, but Van Akker is confident students who graduate from the program will have their pick of jobs.

“There are just so many opportunities that we just pass them on to the students and the students can decide, ‘What kind of company would I like to work for?’”

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According to Statistics Canada, the construction sector had the second-highest vacancy rate in B.C. with a 10.6 per cent vacancy rate in the second quarter of 2022, or 21,115 jobs available.

That means the number of students graduating from trades programs each year in the province will fall short of the construction job openings.

Still, the number of employees in the construction industry was seven per cent higher than pre-pandemic levels, with 178,715 workers as of June, up from 168,200 in February 2020, according to Statistics Canada’s employment survey.

Van Akker said the government should expand trades exploration programs like Women in Trades and Indigenous Persons in Trades to attract students from diverse backgrounds. He’d said additional funding is needed to add seats in trade courses where there’s high demand and waiting lists.

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Van Akker said a large chunk of everyone in trades programs has gone to university, got a liberal arts degree but then shifted to a career that wouldn’t have them sitting in an office or struggling to find a job in their field.

“My feeling is that the there’s still a lot of folks who are pursuing a university education because that’s the thing to do,” said Van Akker, who dropped out of university years ago before finding his calling in carpentry and, now, teaching.

“When you get to finishing a building or a structure like a highway, bridge or something like that, being able to look at that and say, ‘Wow, I was part of that.’ That has a lot of appeal.”

That appeal is catching on, as many trades programs are experiencing increased enrolment and longer waiting lists. At Camosun College, for example, all trades programs are full for this fall and some have waiting lists.

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Enrolment at the school has jumped 25 per cent bump in the trades skills program, 53 per cent in the refrigeration and air conditioning mechanic program and 59 per cent in the heavy duty commercial transport mechanic program.

There are also fewer financial barriers to trade apprentice programs, said Wayne Hand, dean of school of construction and the environment at the B.C. Institute of Technology. Students earn a salary in their trade most of the year and can collect employment insurance during the approximately 10 weeks a year they’re in the classroom.

Ravi Kahlon, B.C.’s minister for jobs, economic recovery and innovation, said there’s almost no sector that hasn’t been hurt by the labour shortage.

B.C.’s Labour Market Outlook report forecasts more than one million job openings in the next decade, 63 per cent because of people retiring or leaving the workforce permanently and 37 per cent created by economic growth and post-pandemic recovery.

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Five sectors will account for half of those one million job openings: health care and social assistance; science and technology; retail; construction; accommodation and food services.

The key to tackling the labour shortage, Kahlon said, is three-fold — affordable daycare that allows more parents to enter the workforce, increased immigration, and skills training and funding for more seats in trades education programs and micro-credential programs.

The Jobs Ministry said it is using information from the Labour Market Outlook to expand training seats in highest-demand fields.

Since 2017, the province has funded 2,900 tech-related spaces, more than doubled the number of nurse practitioner seats to 91, added 602 new nursing seats and 1,150 new early childhood teacher seats.

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In February, the province announced it would spend almost $137 million to build a new trades and technology complex at BCIT in Burnaby. The education hub, to be completed by 2027, would house more than 20 trades and technology programs with space for more than 12,000 full- and part-time students.

It’s also crucial, Kahlon said, to allow more opportunities for women, Indigenous people, people of colour and people with disabilities to enter the trades. Part of this includes combating racism and sexism in the trades to make those jobs more attractive and paying tuition for youth who were formerly in foster care.

He said it also means restoring skilled trades certifications. In 2003, a B.C. Liberal government eliminated the compulsory trades-credentialing system, which the Jobs Ministry said in a statement “devalued careers in the trades and helped create the labour shortages we’re seeing today in the sector.”

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“When I was young growing up, my parents didn’t want me to go in trades, because they were working in those kinds of fields and they wanted us to do something that would pay better and have a better life,” Kahlon said.

“And now kids that were in my generation are looking back and saying, ‘Why did you tell us that? That industry pays so well. And so I do think there’s a bit of a shift happening in there in people’s psychology, knowing where the opportunities are.”

Barbara James, 35, has worked in several trades — including doing road work and being a flagperson, working as a millwright and installing rebar — after finishing high school in 2005. But she never pursued the education to be certified in a particular trade.

“I was trying to find my niche. Trying to find something worth pursuing or a company that would actually invest in me and teach me.”

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James joined the United Brotherhood of Carpenters union and received tuition funding through the Aboriginal Community Career Employment Services Society to enrol in BCIT’s four-year carpentry apprentice program. She’s working on the Pattullo Bridge replacement project through B.C. Infrastructure Benefits, a Crown corporation that builds public infrastructure projects.

In the fall, James will become a Red Seal carpenter. James, who is from the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw First Nation near Port Hardy, also teaches part-time at BCIT and works as a delegate with her union, travelling all over the world promoting ways to attract more women and Indigenous people to the trades.

The skill shortage has forced employers to look for workers outside of the white male demographic that dominates the construction industry, she said.

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“The way I see it, I’ve been given opportunities, and I guess I’ve trail-blazed a bit. I’ve done a lot of the hard work,” James said. “So I’ve taken the responsibility upon myself to show other young Indigenous women what I’m capable of because representation matters. They need to see people in these roles in order for them to believe it for themselves.”

Brigitte Anderson, CEO of the Vancouver Board of Trade, said “a perfect storm” of challenges, including inflation, supply chain shortages and the aging population, means education alone won’t be enough to solve the labour shortage, projected to last at least another year.

It will take a multi-pronged approach by the provincial and federal governments, she said, that includes higher immigration, more micro-credential programs, and faster recognition of foreign credentials, especially in high demand fields.

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“It’s making sure post-secondary institutions are keeping up with the kind of technological change that we’re seeing happen across the board to ensure that those workers are being up-skilled,” Anderson said. “All of that needs to come together, the federal government and the provincial government working together, to solve a pretty complex problem.”


Micro-credential programs help meet labour demands

B.C. post-secondary institutions have been given $9 million in government funding to expand micro-credential programs, which are weeks-long, specialized education courses that the Jobs Ministry says will help thousands improve or gain skills in key high-demand sectors.

The ministry has worked with colleges and universities to fund the creation of 59 new micro-credential programs with spaces for 9,500 students each year.

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Some examples of existing micro-credential programs include:

• Web and digital design skills for transitioning online — Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

• Advanced skills for clean energy and efficient buildings — Camosun College

• Skills in industrial automation — University of British Columbia, Okanagan

• Introductory studies in mass timber construction — British Columbia Institute of Technology.

• Medical terminology skills for office administration — North Island College

kderosa@postmedia.com

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