B.C.'s liquefied natural gas plan boosts immigrant workers

While Premier Christy Clark repeated her pledge Friday that British Columbians will be “first in line” for high-paying jobs in the liquefied natural gas industry, her government is also quietly researching how to fill vacant positions with immigrant workers.

The Ministry of Natural Gas Development is forming a project team and “action plan” to help foreign workers get their qualifications recognized in B.C. and be encouraged to work in the LNG industry, according to a bid document posted on a government website.

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Foreign workers are essential to filling B.C.’s looming labour shortage, the document says. There’s a gap between the 608,000 students set to pass through the province’s education system by 2020, and the more than one million job openings during that period, the government said.

“Most of this gap — about one-third of all job openings — will need to be filled through immigration,” the ministry wrote in its request for proposals to hire a project team.

That includes another 75,000 direct and indirect jobs British Columbia’s LNG industry might generate if five plants come online, according to the government.

“Even if we train all the potential skilled workers B.C. has, we still won’t have enough people to fill all the jobs,” Jobs Minister Shirley Bond said in a statement.

“That’s why we need to look at a large spectrum of possible workers that includes new Canadians and people from other provinces.”

The goal is to remove barriers, and better recognize the training and education of skilled immigrants who want to work in LNG, Bond said.

“We’ve always been clear we want these jobs to go to people living in those regions first, followed by British Columbians, then Canadians hoping to make B.C. their home,” she said.

The premier made supporting a new LNG industry a key focus of her re-election campaign.

Companies are exploring the profit potential in extracting natural gas in northern B.C., liquifying it by freezing it at new coastal terminals, and then shipping it to Asia to sell at a premium price.

Though several companies have invested billions exploring the idea, none has made final investment decisions.

That could happen as soon as next year, the premier has said.

Clark again highlighted the LNG potential in her speech Friday to the Union of B.C. Municipalities meeting, saying it will be a financial windfall that could one day eliminate the provincial debt.

“Everyone has to be welcome at the table so that British Columbians are first in line for those long-term, high-paying, family-supporting jobs,” Clark said.

The Opposition NDP said the focus on immigrant workers doesn’t match the premier’s rhetoric, or her government’s cuts to post-secondary education budgets.

Critic Harry Baines said it also raises concerns about whether the government is pushing for increased use of temporary foreign workers, who can be exploited for cheap labour and then sent away.

But if foreign workers are truly needed for LNG, then the government should pursue ways to recognize their skills so they can work in high-paying jobs and stay in the province, he said.

The Liberal government is just doing its “due diligence” and planning, said Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the B.C. building and construction trades council.

Sigurdson and other labour leaders were recently invited by Clark to create a committee to help B.C. workers get first crack at LNG jobs.

“It’s part of the responsibility for government to do that,” he said of studying foreign-worker qualifications.

“And part of our responsibility is to say we’ve got people ready and willing and able to work.”

rshaw@timescolonist.com

 

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