Skills shortage emerges as B.C. election issue

With a provincial election just three months away, university and student leaders are pushing to make B.C.’s looming skills shortage a key campaign issue.

The province’s six research universities will release a report today that renews calls for increased investment in post-secondary education.

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The report relies on the government’s own projections showing a skills deficit emerging in 2016 and continuing to grow over the following years.

By 2020, there will be 18,800 jobs requiring university, college or trades training and no workers to fill them, the report says, citing the B.C. Labour Market Outlook 2010-2020.

Of those jobs, 16,500 will require university or college training, and 2,300 will need trades training.

“Basically, what we’re saying is there’s a skills and education deficit coming and, in order to deal with it, we’ve got to actually start now,” said University of Victoria president David Turpin.

“We can’t wait to 2016 to say, ‘Wow, we now have this shortfall.’ ”

The Research Universities’ Council of B.C. released its Opportunity Agenda last fall calling for 11,000 new post-secondary spaces and increased financial aid to students in need.

Now the council hopes to see its proposals adopted by the NDP and Liberals in the run-up to the May 14 election.

Turpin and Royal Roads University president Allan Cahoon both described the council’s proposals as reasoned and modest.

“I think the challenge is going to be what’s in the platforms and what happens post-election,” Turpin said.

“That’s going to be the key thing.”

He said the government’s recent announcements of one-time capital investments in equipment at colleges and universities fall short of what is needed.

“What we’re talking about here is growing the system, not just putting together some new buildings,” he said.

The universities proposal calls for spending $130 million over four years to add spaces for 4,400 college and trade students, 3,600 undergrads and 3,000 graduate students.

The universities also want the government to invest a further $51 million a year in aid, so that any qualified student can attend college or university, regardless of their financial circumstances.

Lucia Heffelfinger Orser, director of external relations at the UVic Students’ Society, called the council’s proposals “strong and balanced” and said administrators are speaking a “common language” with students.

“I think it’s unprecedented to have B.C. post-secondary leaders, including universities and student unions, uniting around this goal of accessible well-funded post-secondary education,” she said. “I think that’s something that B.C.’s political parties really need to think about as they draft their policies and platforms.”

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