Trades the new golden ticket in B.C.

The new Marine Training and Applied Research Centre aims to address the looming skilled trades shortage

Alex Rueben

There are a lot of good problems in the shipbuilding and repair industry these days.

About 2,000 new jobs are expected to be created by 2020 in B.C., including 500 in Esquimalt at Victoria Shipyards.

A further 850 retirements over the next seven years are expected to clear the path for a new generation of career shipbuilders, journeymen and labourers in the wake of Seaspan’s $8-billion construction and repair contract with the federal government.

Which begs the question: can the demand be met?

Alex Rueben and his colleagues have been working more than five years to answer that question.

“Oil and gas, mining, forestry and construction in particular, those were really the predominant focus of the training institutions,” he said, tapping his ring on a coffee shop table to punctuate each industry.

“We thought, rather than building a new school that would compete with those, why not build a centre that would facilitate the training for our industry?”

In just a few weeks, executive director Rueben will officially open the Industrial Marine Training and Applied Research Centre, a modest facility located on Songhees land near the Esquimalt Graving Dock.

The two classrooms and computer lab will house about 50 students at any given time.

They’ll eventually offer a customized curriculum, ranging from marine estimation and planning to the cross-training of qualified journeymen from other industries.

In fall 2013, the University of British Columbia will also begin offering an undergraduate degree in naval architecture and marine engineering, in part due to work done by the B.C. shipbuilding and repair workforce table, which Rueben chairs.

“We have the advantage of being organized earlier than other (trades industries),” he said.

“We need to stay ahead of them, because they’re after the same folks we are. Once you develop a welder or an electrician or a metal fabricator or a pipefitter, they can go anywhere they want.”

The demand and competition for skilled workers is a challenge facing industries across the province, said Abigail Fulton, vice-president of the B.C. Construction Association.

She estimates her industry will see a shortage of between 20,000 and 40,000 skilled workers over the next five years, mostly due to demand in northern B.C.

“If every kid in high school decides to go into apprenticeship and trades training, we’re still going to need 20,000 more,” she said. “We’ve got to find them from somewhere.”

Fulton manages the foreign skilled workers B.C. program, which actively recruits international talent when employers have difficulty filling positions with domestic candidates.

“These are individuals who are qualified carpenters, electricians. They’re not labourers,” she said.

In September, Fulton attended a construction job fair in Dublin, Ireland, where 10,000 people showed up.

She said the Irish training standards are similar to those in Canada, making the skills easily transferable.

Construction companies in the Capital Region haven’t had to turn to foreign workers yet, but the critical mass brought about by the shipbuilding sector may come sooner than expected.

“A lot of the trades that we’re looking for, like ironworkers, metal fabricators and so forth, a lot of those people are getting good jobs in the shipbuilding industry, which opens up vacancies in the construction industry,” she said.

While the provincial government champions its jobs plan by pointing to such opportunities, foreign skilled workers are still required to fill some of the gaps – for managerial positions in particular – created by baby boomers retiring in record numbers.

“You’ll see a significant influx of higher skilled, executive level people who are coming in from abroad,” Rueben said, admitting a stigma still exists around international recruitment.

“There’s a real push to upskill the people we’ve got and to bring in new generations of younger folks and underrepresented demographics into the work force.”

For now, Rueben is focused on nurturing an industry that for decades was thought to be dying.

He’s partnered with Helmets to Hardhats, an initiative that connects military veterans with skilled positions in the construction industry, and soon, shipbuilding.

He’s making inroads with First Nations groups to recruit new talent and will spend the next six months building industry-specific courses from scratch.

“Our industry used to be boom-bust,” he said. “People are actually talking about careers again.”

Trades in demand

Expected job openings for trades in B.C., 2013 to 2020:

• Welder (A/B level) – 451

• Marine Fitter – 293

• Electrician – 276

• Pipefitters and sprinkler installers – 223

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