B.C. VIEWS: Pressure on for skills training

Province spurs students to pursue trades careers, but more program seats, loan reforms needed

New Brunswick Premier David Alward and B.C. Premier Christy Clark are looking for a solution to a dispute with Ottawa over redirecting skills training money.

VICTORIA – Advanced Education Minister Amrik Virk has offered some advice for students heading for post-secondary education this fall.

In a commentary sent to B.C. newspapers, Virk reminded students that his task “is to ensure post-secondary students obtain the experience and qualifications needed to put a paycheque in their back pocket.”

B.C. is forecast to have one million jobs to fill by 2020, through a combination of retirements and economic growth. More than 40 per cent of them will require trades and technical training, and for students, likely a move north.

“My advice to students is to look at where the jobs are based and tailor their education and training to match,” Virk wrote. “Our population is concentrated in the Lower Mainland and southern Vancouver Island, but as a resource-based economy, many directly and indirectly related jobs are located elsewhere.”

That’s not the only blunt message for students deciding on a career. While defending his ministry’s spending plans in the recent legislature session, Virk described some of the problems that are entrenched.

Parents, particularly in immigrant communities, push their children towards medicine, law, dentistry or engineering, he noted. Students themselves gravitate toward areas that are familiar to them, such as teaching.

B.C. universities graduated 2,000 new teachers last year. Another 850 arrived from out of province and were licensed to teach in B.C. During the same year, the B.C. school system hired 800 teachers. And many of those jobs were outside metropolitan areas.

It’s been hammered into us by the B.C. government’s endless “jobs plan” advertising, and a similar campaign by Ottawa, that more students need to focus on trades and resource industries. Virk acknowledges that his budget contains another $1 million for advertising, the same as last year, much of it to reinforce the need to fill skilled jobs. But he danced around the question of whether there will be spaces in technical programs.

NDP critics say the waiting list for these kinds of programs at Kwantlen University and B.C. Institute of Technology are running between a year and three years. And they have frequently noted that advanced education spending is budgeted to decline by $42 million over the next three years.

Virk said post-secondary institutions working with industry have produced 456 additional seats in high-demand programs for this year. It’s a start.

In July, Premier Christy Clark joined the chorus of premiers protesting Ottawa’s plan to claw back $300 million in federal training money to provinces, for its new employer-driven Canada Jobs Grant. Clark and New Brunswick Premier David Alward were assigned to find an alternative to this drastic shift and report back in the fall.

As usual, the NDP spent lots of time grilling Virk about student debt and the alleged need to reduce it. Ministry statistics show that about 30 per cent of students take out loans from the federal-provincial program, and the average is $20,000.

One of the latest changes is a program of grants that go toward student debt as a reward for those who complete their chosen program. With 23,000 students collecting $41 million in grants, it might be working. For all the fuss about student debt, students pay only about a third of costs. The rest is on taxpayers, whether it produces any useful education or not.

Virk is under instructions to review the student loan program “to find further improvements to meet students’ needs.” Given the magnitude of the gap between what skills our education system produces and what the economy needs, a larger shift in priorities is needed.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com Twitter: @tomfletcherbc Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca


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