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Editorial: Make education match jobs need

Island Health has admitted it cannot meet the demand for ultrasound tests. The average waiting time for non-emergency scans has risen to five months, with 18,000 patients in the lineup.

Island Health has admitted it cannot meet the demand for ultrasound tests. The average waiting time for non-emergency scans has risen to five months, with 18,000 patients in the lineup.

Similar backlogs exists across the province, and physicians are being asked to consider other diagnostic options until a solution is found.

From a medical and patient-care perspective, this is unacceptable. It is unconscionable that a modern, well-funded health-care system cannot provide such a simple, relatively inexpensive procedure in a timely manner.

The immediate cause is two-fold. Ultrasound technicians train at one facility — the B.C. Institute of Technology in Burnaby. And absurdly, given the desirable nature of this career option — good income and guaranteed employment — only 30 seats are available each year. That is obviously not enough.

Second, ultrasound technicians make considerably more in Alberta and Ontario, meaning we lose some graduates of the program.

But there is a larger issue here. Just what kind of job-training strategy does our provincial government employ?

For this is merely one among many indicators of poor foresight. Until recently, roughly half the engineers finding employment in B.C. came from other provinces, some even from abroad. Our universities were underserving the demand, and to some extent still are.

Then last week, the federal government gave conditional approval for a Petronas-led LNG plant near Prince Rupert. But this comes on the heels of a warning by industry that thousands of temporary foreign workers will be needed if such plants go ahead.

Energy projects such as the Petronas scheme are always controversial. But some, such as B.C. Hydro’s Site C dam on the Peace River and the John Hart power station rebuild in Campbell River, are already underway.

So does the province have a plan to train the required workforce for these and other projects? The answer is no.

The provincial Jobs Ministry does conduct an annual survey of employment opportunities. Notably, ultrasound technicians are among the priority target areas, and we’ve seen how that worked out.

In fairness, some new sonography seats are being added. But this was more a case of panicking than planning.

The problem is that while government ministries can estimate how many job openings will occur, getting our universities, institutes and colleges to fill them is another matter.

Only 17 per cent of post-secondary funding is targeted at occupations in demand. The government hopes to increase that to 25 per cent by 2018.

But all of this has the feel of too little, too late. Among the problems that stand out, hardly any new money has been allocated to meet these targets.

That means colleges and institutes have to juggle their existing staff and infrastructure. But you can’t ask a food-safety instructor to start teaching welding. And you can’t use a biology lab to turn out electricians.

In practical terms, the change in direction that would be needed to meet the government’s workforce projections is beyond the capacity of our existing facilities.

Premier Christy Clark has made a mantra of the promise “jobs, jobs, jobs.” But this misses the real issue.

We need a post-secondary education system flexible enough to change direction as new employment opportunities arise. And we need government funding in sufficient quantities to make this rapid response a reality.

At present, neither of these requirements has been met. The government says the right things, but fails to put its money where its mouth is.

What happened with the ultrasound fiasco was merely symptomatic of a system-wide malfunction. A more co-ordinated approach is needed; otherwise, British Columbians will fail to benefit from many of the job opportunities our new economy creates.