Monday July 14, 2014

Clark versus the Critic

Northern Lights College becomes battleground for skills training debate
Shawn Gill photo

Premier Christy Clark visited Northern Lights College in Fort St. John this fall to mark the government's investment of $794,000 to upgrade the college's skills training equipment.

Premier Christy Clark made a point about investing in education when she announced that the province would be contributing $794,000 to Northern Lights College for upgrades to skill training equipment.

“We have a big task ahead of us in ensuring that British Columbians are first in line to get those jobs. We need to enable the private sector to create those jobs first. Then we need to enable British Columbians to get the skills they need to be able to work at those jobs,” said Clark.

She made the announcement at the Fort St. John campus, where she was joined by Peace River North MLA Pat Pimm, to highlight the additional funding, which is part of $17 million announced in September for upgrades at public institutions across the province.

The tightly choreographed presentation started with Clark meeting with several students and instructors in one of the college’s workshops.

Clark said that the increasing exploitation of the region’s natural gas reserves is a central pillar of her government’s goals to create new jobs and grow the economy.

“In natural gas, we have the ambitious goal to enable the construction and completion of three LNG plants in the northwest by 2020, the first of them by 2015,” said Clark.

The plan is to expand exports of natural gas to Pacific Rim markets.

To that end, the government and BC Hydro are working together on dam projects to produce the hydroelectricity needed to turn natural gas into LNG (liquefied natural gas) for shipment overseas.

Clark said that if the industry follows through on these large-scale projects, there could be one million new jobs created in B.C. over the next ten years.

One of the primary goals of the government’s one-year-old Jobs Plan is to address the province’s deficit in highly skilled trade labour through promotion of and investment in the trades.

Pimm said that as part of the Province’s new skills and training plan, the government wants to encourage more people to think about a career in the trades and migrating to the northeast.

“We want to encourage more and more people to consider careers in the trades. … With every investment in equipment, facilities and programs we send an important message. That choosing a trade is a very smart choice offering a secure future, a rewarding, challenging, skilled and well-paying job,” said Pimm.

Dwayne Watson, a level four apprentice in the heavy-duty electrician’s program, said that the investment in the college was badly needed.

“The equipment we have to work on was outdated when it was donated to the college,” said Watson, noting that the engines that he and his classmates work on don’t actually run.

“We need to be able to work on the kind of equipment that is actually out in the workforce,” said Watson, before thanking the government for its investment.   

The Dawson Creek resident said that it meant a lot to him to be able to stay and get a trade education in the northeast. If he had needed to go to Prince George or even further south for his training, he may not have been able to afford to go to school.

The Premier praised Northern Lights College for its ability to produce graduates whose training meets the evolving demands of the private sector.

“[Northern Lights College has] an ability to partner with the private sector that is unparalleled among post-secondary institutions anywhere… in the country,” said Clark.

“We really are depending on you in order to continue to grow this economy,” Clark said, complementing the college’s students and faculty.

“This region of the province makes such an outsized contribution to our entire economy and to the provincial treasury to enable us to pay for healthcare and education and things that matter to people,” said Clark

The college’s president, Laurie Rancourt, thanked Clark for the government’s investment in the college and said that the money will be used to bring the college’s equipment “up to date and relevant” with many industries in the region.

She said that skills development and training in the northeast will help the region weather its skilled worker shortage.

However, the tone was slightly less optimistic the following day, when Michelle Mungall, NDP critic for advanced education, visited the Dawson Creek campus of Northern Lights College and said that the government should be doing more to promote the trades.

"It'd be nice if we had more of those cutting edge technologies and programs throughout our rural college system," said the Nelson-Creston MLA.

"Many rural colleges are seeing a lot of aged equipment, buildings, not enough space for students who are demanding certain programs. And these are some of the things that we need to look at for our postsecondary sector."

Mungall visited the Northern Lights College on Wednesday, Nov. 21, viewing its Energy House and learning more about what the school could offer, all part of a tour of postsecondary institutions she began in August.

Mungall said she was pleased by what she saw at Northern Lights College.

"It's no doubt the commitment has to be providing quality education to students in the north here and students in British Columbia," she said. "Here we are... learning that students who take these programs can work anywhere."

She also praised the recent move to provide more funding to these institutions.

"We're really glad that the Liberals have taken our lead," she said.

"The Liberals have been increasing their prioritization of trades training, of skills training, and that's been coming on the heels of what we've been saying for several years."

However, Mungall wanted a "fuller commitment" from the Liberals.

She pointed to a letter sent last February by 25 presidents of universities within B.C., including Laurie Rancourt, the President of Northern Lights College.

"It is critical for government to understand that the $70 million reduction to institutional grants over the last two years of the fiscal plan, combined with five years of unfunded inflationary pressures, creates a strain on the operations of post secondary institutions,” the letter states.

“We must be clear that it is unrealistic to assume that the reductions contemplated by Budget 2012 can be achieved without implications for service levels.”

However, Mungall did not say whether or not an NDP government would roll back these changes to educational funding made by the Province. She said that portion of her party’s platform was still being developed.

The presidents were not entirely critical of the province’s treatment of advanced education funding, as they praised the Liberals not reducing the postsecondary budget for the next fiscal year and new funding for deferred capital maintenance.

She did say that the government would reinstate the needs based funding grants.

“We've already made an announcement… to reinstate the needs based grant program and put a hundred million dollars to do it,” Mungall added.

“Right now we're developing our platform and one thing is clear in the development of that platform is advanced education is definitely a priority for us.”

She believed this would benefit the economy.

“If we can help young people reduce the debt load when they finish their training and their education, they're able to get into the market, buy houses, buy cars and contribute more to the local economy rather than just having to pay back the banks.”

Mungall also believed that increased advanced education funding would also help the Peace Region and northeast B.C. as a whole.

“Most other parts of the province are predicting it to really come online in the next five years but it's already happening here in the northeast,” Mungall said.

“We need to get young people trained for jobs in the northeast and the best way to do that is to support college infrastructure.”

She also said that this could help ensure that more work on B.C. projects is done by workers who live in the province.

In the past, some community members have complained about Albertans working on B.C. projects and not contributing tax dollars.

However, Mungall pointed out that Alberta had a higher completion rate for apprenticeship, with a graduation rate around 70 per cent, while B.C. only had 40 per cent completion rate.

“I think the biggest thing that we can do to ensure that local people can qualify for the jobs they have available,” Mungall said. “So if we can increase our completion rate, get them the skills that they need to get those jobs that's the biggest solution that we can have.”

Despite the criticisms she made against Clark’s government, Mungall said her visit was not intended to come as a counter-point critique of the Clark government. She said that she had been hoping to visit Northern Lights College for some time and that last Wednesday was the time when her schedule and the school’s matched.

“I have no idea when (the Premier’s office) makes their specific announcements,” she said. “I'd like to take credit that she heard I was coming and wanted to make an announcement, but I can't say for sure.”

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