Off course

🕔Mar 09, 2006

Is the glass half-full, or half-empty? That’s the question that comes to mind when looking at the latest version of the BC Check-Up, a report released annually by the Chartered Accountants of B.C.

BC Check-Up attempts to take the pulse of British Columbia from the point of view of residents, workers and investors, using several economic and social indicators to compare B.C. to the rest of Canada and eight economic development regions within B.C. to each other.

The report, which was released in October, found that northern B.C. students show the lowest high school graduation rates in the province (see graph).

BC Check-Up also predicted that by 2015, 73 per cent of jobs will require some form of post-secondary education. And the largest portion (44 per cent) of projected job openings between 2003 and 2015 will require people with non-university certificates or diplomas. Twenty-nine per cent of new jobs will require a university degree, and 27 per cent will require no post-secondary education.

Interestingly, the report also noted that people in the Northeast, where high school grad rates are lowest, are almost neck-and-neck, in terms of pre-tax income per capita, with the B.C. average. Its unemployment rate is the lowest in B.C., and per capita pre-tax income rose 15 per cent between 1999 and 2002—the highest rate of income growth in the province, and more than double the growth rate of B.C. as a whole.

By contrast, workers in B.C.’s North Coast development region have the lowest pre-tax income per capita, and higher-than-average unemployment—due to a host of complex economic and social factors.

The upside is that if you already have, or plan to get, some kind of post-secondary education, you’ll be better positioned than ever to get and keep a job over the next 10 years. In 2004, only 60 per cent of British Columbians met that requirement.

And if you are a skilled worker, the coming shortage of skilled workers isn’t a bad thing, because trades shortages mean workers can command higher wages. As the report notes, contract welders working in B.C.’s oil and gas industry recently demanded, and received, a 10 per cent increase in pay: to $88 per hour!

Of course, if you’re a business owner or manager in the resource sector, the trend is worrying. Resource sector companies, particularly in B.C.’s Northeast, are already challenged to keep skilled labour and fill positions vacated by workers who have their pick of opportunities to get rich quick.

“I don’t think it’s at crisis point yet, but if you take a look at the numbers, you know it’s coming,” Bob Affleck, employee and labour relations manager for pipeline company Duke Energy, says from his Prince George office.

Affleck says post-secondary education is increasingly necessary for Duke’s new hires, and estimates 90 per cent of them have some kind of post-secondary training. To help encourage high school students to pursue post-secondary trades training, Duke has partnered with other corporations and educational institutions to help develop the Northern Opportunities Program, and donated $1.8 million to the cause.

Ironically, the same factors which keep wages high also tempt students to quit school before completing it. Affleck notes that the starting wage at Duke, for workers without any post-secondary training, is about $24 per hour. How do you keep students in school when wages like that beckon?

“I don’t know,” he says, noting the powerful draw of a lucrative oil rig job to an 18-year-old who maybe wasn’t that interested in school in the first place, and whose family members and friends have already done it. “I wonder if those kids go back to school when they hit their mid-20s and decide it’s not fun to stand out on a rig at –30°C.”

Charles Jago, president of UNBC, acknowledges that a host of social, economic and cultural factors drive people’s decision to stick with school or carry on with education. He believes that encouraging students (graduated or not) to jump straight into high-paying resource sector jobs is not the answer.

For two years, Jago was a member of the Northeast Oil and Gas Consortium, whose government and industry members—including Duke Energy—continue to strategize about how best to meet the skill shortage.

“Their message was to get people into the job as quickly as possible,” he recalls. “It was not the right message, which should be to help people realize their true potential as human beings, and recognize the full array of opportunities that exist.”

It was this fact that made him leave the committee, even though he felt it was doing much good work.

“I felt the perspective wasn’t broad enough,” said Jago. “If the focus is so short-term that all you’re thinking is pipe fitters and truck drivers, it’s not a good investment in ongoing economic development.”

Jago notes that government, academia, and industry are forging promising new links to expand trades programs, such as the Northern Opportunities Program. So, too, are communities. He cites Quesnel, where a community-led initiative has led to the creation of the North Cariboo Community Campus. Scheduled to open in February, the facility will house operations of UNBC, the College of New Caledonia, and School District 28.

“We need northerners to be able to engage in education at all levels,” he concludes. “We should be the engineers developing new technologies, as well as the people minding the rigs.”

© Larissa Ardis 2006