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Comment: Critical need for skilled workers on the Island

In all the talk about the need to create new jobs on Vancouver Island, it’s often missed that there is a critical shortage of skilled trades just to fill existing Island jobs.

In all the talk about the need to create new jobs on Vancouver Island, it’s often missed that there is a critical shortage of skilled trades just to fill existing Island jobs.

Catalyst Paper has paper mills in Crofton, Port Alberni and Powell River, and each mill has electrical instrumentation and process-control systems more complex and sophisticated than a Boeing 777. Through 2012, Catalyst mills hired 200 new employees — 43 trades and 11 power engineers among them.

With retirements anticipated, we project another 60 skilled trades and trade-related vacancies to fill in 2013 — instrument mechanics, industrial electricians, mechanical and electrical engineers, electrical/instrumentation supervisors and planners, millwrights, power engineers and other skilled trades.

These are mission-critical jobs, and the numbers required to fill these necessary skilled positions are simply not available in our local communities or within B.C. If these jobs can’t be filled, Catalyst can’t operate effectively, and that would translate into a dramatic failure for Vancouver Island and the province. Catalyst’s paper operations generate 7,000 direct and indirect jobs and $2 billion in annual economic activity for B.C.

Over the next seven years, nearly 50 per cent of Catalyst’s employees will reach retirement, meaning a dire shortage of steam engineers, millwrights, instrumentation mechanics, electricians and other trades. This shortage of skilled tradespeople is not restricted to the Island — it’s becoming an industry and manufacturing reality across the continent. The demand for skills is high in Canada and across North America, and the province has already witnessed steady erosion in skilled trades moving to jobs in Alberta and elsewhere in North America.

The skilled trades themselves are evolving, just as Catalyst is. Success in tomorrow’s marketplace will come to the companies and employees who demonstrate innovation and adaptation. Lifetime learning is no concept; it’s a requirement for our company and our industry.

So what are the company and the communities and employees that depend on Catalyst mills to do?

Catalyst has met with the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training to explore solutions and work has begun examining certification and training courses involving North Island College and Vancouver Island University. We’ve also put forward ideas and options involving local colleges to provide trades and power-engineering certification and transfer programs, with our mills providing infrastructure and work experience.

Discussions with the Jobs Ministry have also involved K-12 school integration for trades and power engineers, and curriculum better aligned to labour and attrition needs. The ministry is set to fund a study to examine what’s required for the province’s educational programs to address the provincial shortage of skilled trades.

Helping keep young people in our communities with skills and training for jobs that place the job-holder in the top five per cent of earners in their community is obviously a good thing to do, but it doesn’t address the critical short-term requirement for skilled workers.

For that, Catalyst has asked the government of British Columbia to help through its Provincial Nominee Program, which allows the province to nominate a select number of candidates each year to apply for accelerated permanent residence through Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

There are two streams to the program: one for business immigrants — suspended in November 2012 pending a review — and one for skilled workers.

Catalyst has asked the B.C. government to use the PNP skilled-workers process with its express lane for immigration and work visas, to help fill these individual mission-critical positions and, in turn, protect the 7,000 direct and indirect B.C. jobs that depend on Catalyst operations.

In the short term, the PNP will support efforts to recruit qualified skilled individuals from around the world to fill critical jobs. Meanwhile, Catalyst is working hard to develop and train Island applicants for these important, high-paying skilled jobs in the longer term.

These are important steps, but they are only first steps. If Vancouver Island communities are to flourish as host and home to sustainable manufacturing and industry, then companies like Catalyst and the provincial government must work in concerted effort to ensure B.C.’s education and training systems can provide the skilled tradespeople to make these Island enterprises successful.

If we work together to develop qualified tradespeople who have the commitment to lifelong learning and the capacity for adaptability and innovation it signals, we’ll do much more than address a skills shortage on Vancouver Island. We’ll develop a skills and training advantage for Vancouver Island that will produce social and financial benefits long into the future.


Kevin J. Clarke is president and CEO of Catalyst Paper.