Fletcher: Dix hot on subject of need for skills training in B.C.

I sat down with NDP leader Adrian Dix in his legislature office last week to get a better sense of his thinking on the subject.

My column on skills training a couple of weeks ago gave short shrift to the NDP position: Tax the banks and hand out grants for women’s studies, sociology and other worthless pursuits, while skilled jobs go begging.

That’s a pretty crude caricature, so I sat down with NDP leader Adrian Dix in his legislature office last week to get a better sense of his thinking on the subject.

Dix has been devoting a lot of time lately to skills training, in trades particularly. He meets frequently with business people now, and his recent speeches emphasize that every one of them talks about the growing shortage of skilled employees.

Dix credits Premier Christy Clark and jobs minister Pat Bell with making some good moves recently, announcing equipment upgrades for vocational programs around the province. He says it’s because the NDP have been “pounding away at them for eight months” about freezing advanced education spending in their March budget.

Dix calls that a crucial mistake and predicts the government will reverse it soon.

“So I think, if we’re going to have a mission for four years as a government, if we’re elected, this is the mission: To start to address the skills shortage,” he told me.

In his speech to the recent municipal convention, and again at an NDP provincial council meeting, Dix zeroed in on B.C.’s apprenticeship system. Since the B.C. Liberals took it from trade unions and set up a Crown corporation called the Industry Training Authority in 2004, the completion rate for apprentices has fallen to 37 per cent, he said.

Dix assured me he isn’t proposing to “blow up” the ITA, or hand control back to unions. They will have “a voice,” along with business.

Speaking to the NDP executive, Dix referred to Phil Hochstein, president of the non-union Independent Contractors and Businesses’ Association, as the symbol of trades training decline. Not surprisingly, Hochstein has a different take.

The 37 per cent figure is misleading, Hochstein said, because under the ITA there are currently 32,000 apprentices in the system, twice as many as when it was union controlled. Many drop out in the first year, and Alberta claims a better completion rate because they don’t start counting until the second year. And when Dix touts Alberta’s “mandatory” trade system, Hochstein said he means returning to a system where all work is restricted to journeymen or registered apprentices of that trade.

“What it does is impose union jurisdiction on the training system of the entire construction industry,” Hochstein said. “So multi-skilling, multi-tasking, organizing the work in the most efficient way is blown out of the water, and it’s stuck in the old craft system of training.”

The marketplace has spoken on that restrictive system, he said, and unionized construction is down to about five per cent of the market, based on payroll.

Hochstein said the NDP talks a great game about getting more young people into trades. But when unions have the upper hand, they will always favour seniority. A quota of two apprentices per journeyman means another one can’t be hired.

Dix agreed with me that the public school system has over-emphasized university, to the detriment of not just industrial trades but lab techs, chefs and other skilled workers that are in short supply.

As B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair recently noted, tradesmen themselves often don’t encourage their kids, because they’ve been told all their lives that they are “tool monkeys” in a dead-end job.

And would NDP student grants be targeted to need? Dix’s answer was a definite maybe.

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