A young female friend of our family approached me the other day and said she has decided to drop out of university and pursue something else.
"I'm thinking of becoming a welder. What do you think?" she asked me.
I congratulated her on her choice, and told her it was very likely she would have a well-paying career a lot quicker than most of her university-bound friends and that it would last a very long time.
I was reminded of that encounter upon hearing the news that the B.C. Construction Association is once again heading to Ireland to find about 600 qualified trades people to fill positions in this province. Not only is this a return trip to Ireland, but it follows a similar expedition to California last year.
I've written about our looming skills shortage before, but there are few signs the problem is being addressed in any significant way. And time is of the essence. The raw demographical change that is starting to ripple through society at an accelerating pace is having an impact that literally grows by the day.
For example, as more and more baby boomers ease into retirement (albeit at a later year than in the past), the vacancies in all kinds of trained occupations start to mushroom. The peak of the boomer generation will retire in about 10 years, and that is when we may be in a genuine crisis if action is not taken now.
How do these demographic changes play out in the workplace? Well, those who retire are oftentimes the people who are in management or in senior supervisory positions. On construction projects, that translates into a lot of foremen and project managers leaving, without adequately trained (and experienced) hands to replace them.
Adding to the urgency of solving this problem ("crisis" would not be an overstatement) is the fact that a number of major industrial projects are set to come online in the foreseeable future. Pipelines, LNG plants, several new mines, wind farms, plus the regular ongoing construction projects - all will require in total tens of thousands of new, properly trained trades workers.
One government estimate concludes that over the next 10 to 15 years, more than 150,000 vacancies in the trades will need to be filled. Premier Christy Clark has engaged with the unionized B.C. Building Trades Council to tap into what she calls their "trap line" of skilled workers in the United States to help fill those jobs.
But we need workers from B.C. as well. And this brings us to our education system and whether it is doing enough to close this skills gap.
Both Clark and Education Minister Peter Fassbender have dropped broad hints some big changes may be coming, in both the K-12 and post-secondary sides of the education equation.
Perhaps students will be offered more choices, or encouragement, at an earlier age to consider getting a trade as their career.
If it becomes clear to young people that the way to a well-paying job is through a trade and not a vaguely defined university degree, perhaps there will be a much bigger take-up of a trades vocation.
Any changes in the postsecondary system regarding making trades more of a priority are trickier and potentially more controversial.
Universities and colleges rightly value their academic freedom and independence.
However, the days of a provincial government handing over millions of dollars to a post-secondary institution with no strings attached may be drawing to a close.
I've heard the premier say she doesn't see the point of universities simply churning out more, to pick just one example, teachers when there is a surplus of teachers. This may translate into her government increasing funding for trades training programs by taking funding away from other post-secondary programs, which will likely be met with howls of outrage from the academic community.
While traditionally academic degrees such as arts degrees remain valuable (the so-called "credentials inflation" means some kind of degree is required even for jobs not needing one a decade ago) we need more young people like my family friend who are willing to step outside the box.
And they must be given greater opportunities to do that, which means more government funding.
They are the workers who will not only benefit financially, but who will help solve a problem that could inflict serious damage on our economy.
Young women wanting to be welders? More please.
Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC Keith.Baldrey@globalnews.ca
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