B.C. shifts education money toward trades

B.C. colleges and universities will face increased pressure to train people for the trades and other high-demand jobs under a government strategy released Tuesday.

The Skills for Jobs Blueprint invests no new money in education, but attaches strings to the dollars that post-secondary schools already receive.

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In the past, 10 per cent of the $1.8 billion in provincial operating grants was targeted for the health sector, including nursing.

By 2017-18, about 25 per cent of grants or $450 million will be aimed at programs that train people for specific jobs, such as the welders, pipefitters and engineers required for a possible liquefied natural gas industry in the north.

Money will also be targeted at courses that train aboriginal people and people with disabilities.

Schools could lose money if they fail to provide seats in targeted areas, the government said.

“We want to make sure that we get the bang for the buck that way,” said Advanced Education Minister Amrik Virk. “We want to make sure that we’re training the right students at the right place at the right time for the right job.”

Jobs Minister Shirley Bond said the government will use labour market data to determine where to direct money. She admitted the approach will shift money away from some areas, but insisted that liberal arts programs will survive.

“It isn’t always about adding new money,” she said. “It’s about making sure that the money you have is invested in the areas we need to be invested in.”

The Opposition slammed the blueprint’s lack of new investment.

“I just can’t even understand what they’re talking about,” said NDP advanced education critic David Eby. “The schools don’t have money for the basic programming right now, so taking money away from the schools to fund additional programs? The math doesn’t add up.”

But Philip Hochstein, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of B.C., said there’s already enough money, it just needs to be spent more efficiently.

“There’s billions of dollars in the education system, but it’s used sometimes to graduate too many teachers, for example,” he said.

The Research Universities’ Council of B.C., which represents six member institutions including the University of Victoria and Royal Roads University, said it shares the province’s goal of giving young people the skills they need to succeed.

“With experts warning of a growing skills gap, B.C.’s universities are providing young British Columbians with skills that are valued by employers in today’s economy — a combination of practical, critical-thinking and analytical tools that give young people a tremendous advantage in a fast-changing job market,” said council chairman Stephen Toope, president of the University of B.C.

The prospect of too much emphasis on labour-market predictions worries Robert Clift, executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C.

“There seems to be throughout the whole thing an unwavering faith in the government’s ability to project future labour markets, and frankly the record on that is bad — not just this government, every government,” he said. “There’s only a certain amount of prediction you can do with any accuracy in the labour market.”

Other aspects of the skills for jobs strategy include:

• student grants to encourage people to enrol in high-demand programs

• money to reduce waitlists for trades training

• doubling to 5,000 the number of spaces in the ACE IT program, which allows students to earn dual credits in high school and a trade

Bond also announced plans to replace the board of the Industry Training Authority, a Crown agency created 10 years ago to oversee the skilled trades system. A recent report said the ITA is regarded as unfocused, bureaucratic and slow to make decisions.

lkines@timescolonist.com

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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