From the monthly archives: April 2012

Long term planning.

Sound planning is an important component of business success. Many businesses plan between one and five years ahead with some assurance but beyond year five, uncertainties often make reliable planning problematic.

Uncertainties include the vagaries of the business and commodity cycles, shifting markets and foreign exchange rates, changing consumer trends and environmental standards, a tight labour market, estimating reserves and depletion rates for non-renewable natural resources, disruptive new technologies, or end of product cycle/demand for your services.  The inability to predict these uncertainties frequently means that business plans do not extend into the long term, and the firm has no process for effectively analysing opportunities and evaluating trends. However, tools do exist to aid in long term and very long term planning.  Perhaps the most useful of these is called Foresight.


CRI and the Foresight Process

In the Autumn of 2011, the Centre for Research & Innovation led an exercise in very long term planning for the Peace Country.  The process started with the drafting of a question that defines the planning horizon, the stakeholders and desired outcomes.  The CRI’s question was: “By 2050, what must the Alberta Peace Country offer its citizens, stakeholders, industries and global markets to be socially responsible and economically prosperous?”

The CRI then invited approximately 40 participants to identify the trends in a workshop setting. In all, 20 trends were identified (full list available on the CRI website). From the list the delegates agreed that Geo-economics and Regional availability of appropriate knowledge and skills are the most important to the region.

The next step was to create four scenarios around these critical uncertainties. The scenarios described four possible outcomes: (1) the best possible situation, whereby the region is the beneficiary of favourable geo-economics and appropriate knowledge and skills; (2) the worst possible situation, whereby the region faces unfavourable geo-economics without the right knowledge and skills; (3) a situation whereby the region has favourable geo-economic conditions but lacks the knowledge and skills to take advantage of these conditions; and (4) a situation whereby the region has the right knowledge and skills but the geo-economics are against us.

The 40 delegates then divided into four groups to develop these four scenarios.  Delegates needed to debate the constellation of trends and circumstances required for the full development of each scenario by 2050. The process also required the creation of a timeline describing those circumstances.  The end result was a ‘story’ that described the trends and events which will unfold if the scenario comes to pass.

Nobody knows which scenario will unfold, but it is certain that geo-economics and knowledge/skills will have a substantial affect on the region within the next four decades, and the four scenarios will likely capture many of the future possibilities. Managers who are aware of these scenarios will be in a better position to recognize trends as they develop, and to appropriately respond to opportunities and threats.

Gary Christopherson, is an adjunct staff member to the Centre for Research & Innovation.


Ryan Gilmore was frustrated with high school and considered dropping out. Then he learned of the dual credit programs offered by the Northern Opportunities initiative and signed on to train as an automotive service technician while still in high school. Now he’s graduating with the highest mark in his course.

Photo courtesy of NLC

“It’s the best decision I’ve ever made in my life,” he said in a testimonial for the program. “I’ve got more than enough credits to graduate (high school) and I have a whole life plan ahead of me now.”

Noting that he can earn up to $50 an hour right out of school, he said, “That’s a pretty good deal.”

Northern Opportunities, developed by industry and educators in Northeastern BC, is going a long way toward addressing skills shortages and keeping students in school until graduation – and working in their home area afterward. Now, a decade after its inception, other jurisdictions are looking carefully at the program as a potential solution for their areas, too.

Northern Opportunities began to take shape through discussions with Duke (now Spectra) Energy and local educators in 2001 about how to address skilled labour shortages along with recruitment and retention issues in Northeastern BC. It was formalized by the Northeast BC Community Learning Council in 2002 to increase awareness of and participation in trades and technical careers among secondary schools in the region.

Experts even then knew that a skills and labour shortage was looming and graduation rates were plummeting as students left school early, seeking work in the oilpatch where even unskilled labour could bring six-figure wages.

“The value to students is that this allows them to start their career pathway while still in high school and receive the necessary specialized training to transition into the workplace,” said Northern Opportunities program director Cheryl Anthony. “This in turn provides a skilled workforce to meet the communities’ needs.”

The program is driven by a consortium of partners including the three school districts in Northeastern BC, aboriginal schools, Northern Lights College and local industry. Students take the regular required coursework to meet BC Graduation requirements and supplement those with dual credit course options, receiving credit towards high school graduation as well as credit at the college level.

Tuition costs are supported by the school districts and the industry partners while industry also provides assistance through scholarship and bursary awards. Some students also engage in paid work experiences while participating in dual credit programs, which helps offset training and education costs and improves accessibility to all students, Anthony said.

The success of the Northern Opportunities program cannot be denied. A study from 2006-2010 shows the dual credit graduation rate is 86.3 per cent, while the dual credit aboriginal graduation rate is 75.8. That compares favourably with the traditional graduation rate of 68 per cent (53.4 per cent for aboriginal students – especially since the traditional rates include students in dual credit programs.

The dual credit concept actually surfaced 20 years ago when a Dawson Creek student interested in a welding career with help from local educators was allowed to take a college welding program while still in high school, said Jeff Lekstrom, Dean of Instruction, Trades, Apprenticeship and Technology at Northern Lights College. “From then on he was a success. He got three ‘tickets’ and has done very well. It kept growing from there.”

Lekstrom said while the dual credit concept wasn’t new, Northern Opportunities was the “catalyst” that brought it all together. One school district acting alone didn’t have the resources to take it to the next level. Northern Opportunities did.

The program’s three primary objectives are: (1) to increase successful high school completion and transition to post-secondary education and employment by northern students; (2) to support a community-driven program which builds the capacity of students to benefit from opportunities in local industries, with an expanded focus on non-trades and continued focus on trades and technology; and (3) to provide information, support and resources to enhance student achievement. The target group is youth currently in the school system, including aboriginal students, potential dropouts, and female students who could benefit from an alternate educational delivery model. This includes those students at both ends of the learning spectrum as well as those in the middle.

Students in the program are usually in Grades 11-12 although some have begun as early as Grade 10 – if they show dedication and have the pre-requisite courses. They then take Northern Lights College courses for up to three semesters, completing with Level 1 certification in their chosen trade, sometimes even Level 2. Every trade offered at the college, up to Red Seal Certification, can be taken as a dual credit program, Lekstrom said.

“Dual credit provides a mechanism to go directly to the workplace and be valuable to employers,” he said. “It’s not a test drive. The students are dedicated and they know what they want. There are great advantages. Their jobs are generally high paying, they pay taxes and they contribute to society.”

Lekstrom said that’s in large part due to the changing requirements of the workforce. Gone are the days, he said, when it was enough to be “big and tough” to succeed in the trades. In today’s workplace, students need good grades to manage the advanced technology requirements. “Now you have to work with your head as well as your hands.”

The first phase included the development of dual credit courses to increase the number of students in trades and technology; the collection of data on key success indicators; increased information and marketing efforts (including middle school students and parents); increasing the involvement of industry partners; and securing sustainable sources of funding. A new, expanding phase is offering non-trades courses while seeking further business partners and sponsorships.

“The decision to expand into non-trades courses was one that seemed ‘a logical next step’ based on the success of our trades phase,” said Anthony.  “We wanted to provide the same opportunities to students in other vocational and academic areas in which there is also a demand for skilled workers, for example, health sciences, business, graphic arts, education, etc.”

The non-trades program includes courses in early childhood education, plus a variety of courses in arts and sciences: English, math, accounting, criminology, biology, psychology, visual arts and health sciences. The intent was to diversify opportunities for students, allowing them to get a head start on university level courses. And it’s exceeding expectations, said Steve Roe, the college’s Dean of Academic and Professional Programs, noting that one-third of the 2011 graduating class at North Peace Secondary School in Fort St. John had taken academic dual credit classes. More than 85 per cent of the students in dual credit graduated – far above the provincial norm.

“We’re almost at the saturation point,” he said. But he doesn’t see an immediate expansion to include offering every course available at the college. “We’ve seen tremendous growth over the past three years but we should appreciate the success we’ve experienced before we need to make decisions about how we grow.”

The program’s success makes it evident that more seamless education is coming for students who can more easily “ladder” from one level to the next by removing barriers, Roe said. The academic dual credit program has expended to include online courses offered in conjunction with the Northern BC Distance Education School, which allows students from other jurisdictions as far away as the BC North Coast to participate.

“We’re on the cutting edge here and this is an educational trend that’s likely to continue.”

The good work being done in this region is sparking interest in other districts. Several are following the Northern Opportunities model, though in many cases the colleges in those areas don’t have as many dual credit programs available as does Northern Lights College.

“But here, the sky’s the limit,” Lekstrom said. “There are lots of choices and limitless opportunities for our young people.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges. “The future looks great as far as program interest and enrollments go,” said Anthony. “The recruitment and retention of skilled labour is still a need in our area where the economic development and workforce opportunities are amongst the best in our country.

“Our biggest challenge is the financial sustainability of these programs. To date, with two three-year grants from the Northern Development Initiative Trust, the Northern Opportunities Partnership has been able to establish . . . more than 25 dual credit programs that are running well. But it will be difficult to maintain or grow them without designated funding.”


Nicole Schartner says she is glad to be in the Power Engineering program at GPRC (Grande Prairie Regional College) Fairview Campus not only because she enjoys the work, but because it allows her to “talk shop” with family.

Photo courtesy of GPRC

The soon to be 19-year-old, whose grandfather and two uncles are also power engineers, became interested in the program right out of high school. “I went on the job with them and found out what it was all about. I liked the work itself and when I found out the schooling was short – it was even better.”

She now finds more to talk about when the family gets together.  “It’s pretty awesome!  It’s definitely better with my uncles because I can relate to them a lot more.  One uncle was pretty excited and he definitely encouraged it.  My grandpa was pretty excited but he was concerned about how I would be treated as a woman.”

As a woman in a male-dominated profession, Schartner initially found resistance when looking for a student practicum position. This challenge turned out to be a blessing in disguise when she was chosen to work elsewhere. “I ended up at Encana Sexsmith, and it’s absolutely phenomenal. I love it.”

She has found the group she works with to be a pleasure; she even bakes cookies and brings them in for her colleagues.  “I’m just turning nineteen and all the guys I work with are in their late 30s with kids. I could not have asked for anyone better to work with because these guys treat me like a niece or a daughter.”

The program offered at GPRC is expanding to a two-year flexible program, allowing candidates the option of finishing with Fourth Class, obtaining their Gas Processing certification or continuing to full Third Class Power Engineering Certification.

Brent Boutilier, Power Engineering instructor for GPRC says the industry offers plenty of variety in terms of where you can work.  “With a Power Engineer certificate (First to Fourth), there are a number of streams power engineers can go into, the biggest one being oil and gas.  But there’s also breweries, petro-chemicals, fertilizer plants, food processing plants, power generating plants and hospitals, just to name a few.  It’s needed just about everywhere.”

Schartner agrees.  “That’s what is so great about this field.  Once you have your ticket, you have a piece of paper that says you are an engineer.  You can do so many things and go wherever you want; you can even be shipped out of the country.  There are so many options that I’m not even sure where I’ll go with it.”

According to Boutilier, the industry is going to continue to grow.  “The nice thing about power engineering is once they (students) are finished building the new plants, all the construction trades go off to build another plant, but we stay there for another 40 or 50 years running it,” says Boutilier, adding that the typical salary for a power engineering graduate starts at approximately $60,000 a year and there is potential for it to grow quickly.  “I’ve got one student who’s making $120K after a year in the field,” he says.

Schartner, who will be a fourth class power engineer when she finishes her first round of schooling this spring, plans to gain her second class certification in the next six years.

“I am so glad that I got into this – it’s incredible. I think the best part is you always learn, you never stop learning and every day I go to work it’s something new.  That’s always pretty exciting when you go to work,” she says.

As for Nicole, she concluded, “I definitely made the right choice – this field is open to everyone”.

Contributed by Grande Prairie Regional College


Priding itself on being a family friendly community, Fort St. John still manages to find plenty of room for industry and business.

“There’s tons of stuff going on,” said Fort St. John Brent Hodson.

Mayor Lori Ackerman agrees. “I have always loved the energy here. We have a very strong volunteer base here that provides opportunities for our youth, social infrastructure, arts and cultural and sport…Our ability to think outside the box is part of our DNA.”

Being the “second largest community” north of Kamloops affords plenty of opportunities she added. Walking trails, a busy cultural centre, library, and plenty of local and nationally recognized musicians help to create a vibrancy and excitement for residents. With a very young population, that is no small achievement.

Fort St. John also sports a facility that provides for year round indoor soccer as well as the Pomeroy Sports Centre with an indoor walking track, ice rinks, and a world-class speed skating oval. It also has the distinction of providing classroom space for education.

“The Energetic Learning Centre is a partnership between School District #60 and the City of Fort St John that sees project based learning being facilitated in our new Pomeroy Sport Centre.  I love the T-Shirts that the youth had made – ‘You know you are Canadian when you go to school in a hockey rink, Eh!’.”

Providing quality of life across generations is one of the things that keeps people in the community, but most of the time it’s the work that gets them there. And right now, that is posing challenges for the growing community.

Businesses of all kinds are finding themselves challenged to find enough people to fill all the jobs in the area. In fact, Hodson says the unemployment rate is “so low it can’t even be measured properly”.

“We all know someone who ‘came up for a couple of years’ and stayed,” says Ackerman. “I think it’s because you will come here to work, connect with the community and stay for the life.”

That influx of people, while desirable, creates another critical challenge – finding living accommodations for them all – but it is a bit of a catch 22 situation.

There is a shortage of housing stock, says Ackerman but while she recognizes that there are “developments coming forward that will create some beautiful neighbourhoods”, the lack of skilled trades keeps the ability to get things built slower than is ideal.

The business community and the municipal government are both addressing the issue of planning for growth. With the assistance of urban planners and the completion of the Official Community Plan, “the city has really taken the initiative”, says Hodson.

If there was one thing that he would change about the city, he says it would be the way the city is laid out. Like other communities, the downtown core has had its struggles. Part of the current planning includes the “infill” of that area to create higher density. That also extends out to the city boundaries, says Ackerman, so that the city can make the best use of existing infrastructure.

Despite the challenges there is still a fair amount of investment in the city, says Hodson. While the Chamber of Commerce is doing its part to support businesses, the city is also doing their part to encourage businesses to operate in Fort St. John.

“Fort St John has initiated strengthening partnerships with the industries that are significant to our economy. These include the energy, forestry and agriculture industries,” says Ackerman.

Fort St. John’s uniqueness lies in the blend of industries, agriculture and “some of the most beautiful nature escapes in Canada” she says.

Whether it’s the dollars that flow to the province, or the contributions to community organizations, industry plays a huge role in the community but other business also play their part.

“Retention and expansion of local small- and medium-sized businesses are key to moving forward as the CEO’s and owners of the local businesses are our best ambassadors for any new business considering Fort St John as home,” says Ackerman.

“Fort St John is a community that has been underestimated for years.  It has been through the tenacity of the people who live here and the rich resources that will continue to make it a great place to be.”


The troubles that have besieged Canada’s largest trading partner, the United States, since 2009 make it crystal clear that exporters need to have a backup plan.

It seems simple: One market shrinks so you go after others, right? But wishing won’t necessarily make it so, and going global means unique challenges that go right along with those seemingly great marketing opportunities for Canadian products.

Todd Evans, director of corporate research for Export Development Canada (EDC), notes that shipments to the US have fallen to 72 per cent of Canada’s exports overall, down from 85 per cent 10 years ago. Obviously many companies are looking overseas to new markets, he said, such as China, Brazil, India and beyond.

“If you’re a small- to medium-sized company then you can be looking to market your goods and services beyond the United States,” he said. “Don’t give up on the US but take a more global stance.”

After 2009 the world experienced perhaps the biggest and most highly synchronized global downturn in modern history, Evans explained at a recent Growing The North conference in Grande Prairie, AB. Recovery has been sporadic and sluggish, mostly supported by fiscal stimulus and monetary easing. This has been a “balance sheet recession”, he said, which tends to be more prolonged as it takes time to work off the debt and excesses built up during boom years.

“The bottom line is a tougher economic environment for Canadian and US exporters,” Evans said, noting that competition is increasing, as every country wants to grow their exports to support their own economic recovery. Combine that with volatile economic growth and rising input costs, and it creates an uncertainty that makes it hard to develop and stick to a business plan. This tougher environment is expected to last through the next 2-3 years, he told the audience.

This volatility means companies are stress-testing their business much more than they did in the past, building up cash cushions, locking in credit lines, cutting waste, and buying insurance, moves that are being treated as necessary “sunk costs”.

At the same time, the US economy is gaining traction. Credit conditions are improving, which is especially critical for small firms, the labour picture is better though not perfect, and many companies are flush with cash.

Manufacturers in particular are ramping up, he noted, with manufacturing orders topping $460 billion this year, a strong recovery from post-2009’s $338 billion. While slower growth is expected in China and Brazil, though prospects there are good in the longer term, it remains steady in India and emerging markets are holding their own. The European Union economy is contracting, however, as credit markets tighten and banks are under pressure.

Actually, Canada’s exports have not shown significant growth over the past decade, he said, and, at about one per cent, lag behind all other major industrialized nations. For example, the world leader is India with 23 per cent growth in exports in the past decade, while the world average tops 11 per cent. Also, Canada is lagging in its commitment to research and development, our productivity gap with the US is widening, and we trail our American neighbours in business investment.

Companies seeking to expand their markets need to understand that international trade is now more than ever about global supply chains and the environment is growing ever more competitive. Evans suggested smaller firms can go abroad “on the coattails” of larger firms who have linkages overseas.

He recommended the “Integrative Trade Model” that blends traditional export sales with foreign sourcing and investment into one package that maximizes companies’ productivity and profitability. This model is important, he told the audience, because it allows Canadian companies to take advantage of global markets, and provides the cost efficiencies and knowledge flows needed to better compete there.

“It takes work, and it doesn’t happen overnight,” Evans said in an interview, adding that it can take 5-8 years to break into a new overseas market. “India is likely to be the next big market after China so people should start now . . . and have patience.”

Evans said there are, nevertheless, huge markets available for the exporters willing to put in the effort to gain a toehold in them. Of course, everyone is talking about China, India and Brazil, but the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries are available, along with the “next tier” – Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and East Asia. Markets also await in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in smaller countries in South America. Australia also has potential as its resource- and agrifoods-based economy is similar to Canada’s. Europe has been a factor but may slack off due to its current economic woes.

“Watch for developing markets where there is a growing middle class with disposable income,” Evans said. “There’s lots of opportunity there for our value-added products as they become more affluent.” He noted that emerging markets now account for 12 per cent of Canada’s exports, compared with six per cent 10 years ago.

The markets for Canadian goods and services are varied, Evans said. Annual wood exports to China grew from $51 million in value a decade ago to almost $1.2 billion last year. In 2002, BC’s exports to China amounted to $756.3 million which grew to almost $5 billion last year – an average annual growth rate of 23 per cent while the province’s exports to the US declined at an average annual rate of -3.7 per cent. In the same time frame, Alberta’s exports to China grew on average 15.3 per cent annually, from $833.5 million in 2002 to $3 billion last year.

Non-US markets accounted for 57.3 per cent of BC’s total exports in 2011 compared with a 31.8 per cent share a decade ago. Outside of the US, BC’s largest markets are, in order, China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Brazil. BC’s top exports are coal (Asia), mining and metals (Japan, South Korea, US, China), wood products (US, China, Japan), pulp and paper (China, US, Japan, South Korea), oil and gas (US), and processed food products (US, Japan, South Korea).

On the Alberta side, exports to non-US markets amounted to $5.9 billion a decade ago and topped $12.4 billion last year. Energy is the dominant export sector for Alberta but other sectors are gaining ground: chemicals ($6.1 billion in 2011), crops ($2.9 billion), pulp ($1.3 billion), and fertilizers ($1.2 billion). Alberta also has leveraged its energy sector to increase exports of oil and gas machinery, which reached almost $1 billion last year.

There are good growth opportunities also in metals, mining, potash and grains, as well as support services such as drilling, equipment, and construction and infrastructure materials.

While the export future may look rosy, there are challenges that go beyond the norms of accessing necessary credit and the increasing issue of finding skilled labour. Companies wanting to tap into these markets need to do their homework, as each regime is different – and almost all of them are unlike North America in the way they operate and conduct business. Evans said it’s important for exporters to learn about their markets – the local regulations, Customs, and culture, along with the particulars of shipping and getting products across another nation’s borders.

“All this can be a challenge but it helps if you can get a local partner,” said Evans, noting that Canada has lost its low currency cost advantage while the US has gained against Canada and others. He predicts the Canada-US exchange rate will remain elevated for the next 12-18 months, in the CAN$0.95 to US$1 range.

This is a time of great opportunity for exporters, including those in the agriculture sector, said Kim McConnell, founder and former CEO of AdFarm, an ag marketing agency. He wants to ensure producers focus on growing export markets, not just maintaining the ones they have.

“There are great opportunities in front of us because the world wants what we have,” he said, noting that Canada soon will be one of only six countries in the world capable of feeding itself and others. “That’s a tremendous opportunity. We can succeed like never before but we need to plan in order to do that. And if we don’t succeed then it’s our own darn fault.”

McConnell said Canada is “the envy of the world” for its high-quality products, great producers, positive growing environment, quality processing and good regulatory system. “We have the right ingredients but are we taking advantage of them?” he questioned.

The agriculture industry counts on exports, he explained, with fully half of the commodities produced here being exported. Japan is becoming a great market for Canadian beef, and Canada is just gaining access to Korea, but access is not available to many European Union countries that could offer a significant export destination. “We don’t have access to all the markets we need and government needs to step up and open some channels for us.”

Government also could get involved proactively by streamlining restrictive regulations, he said, and he encouraged producers to express their concerns to government through their MP or MLA and/or by using lobby groups. “The time to put pressure on is now. Farmers are doing their job but the whole industry needs to crank it up a little bit,” McConnell said.

He said many people don’t realize the agriculture is the number-one industry in Canada. “We’re a growth industry but we have to tell our messages.”

McConnell said it’s “too early to tell” what if any impact the demise of the Canadian Wheat Board will have on agriculture exports. As a monopolistic organization the CWB was a large exporter but now, while more people are selling the products the question is whether or not a focus has been lost.

Nevertheless, exporters don’t have to go it alone. Organizations exist that are eager to offer their expertise. The EDC offers a wide range of services and is taking a more proactive approach by matching Canadian companies with prospective buyers, Evans said. In addition, exporters can use the services of the Farm Credit Corporation, the Business Development Corporation and the federal Trade Commission Service, which lately has “upped their game”, he said.

But for small companies seeking to expand their presence in the export market, challenges remain. Richard Vanderzee, owner of On Track Supplies and Equipment Ltd. of Grande Prairie, is getting interest for his parts and used equipment inventory from the US and elsewhere in the world, with about 25 per cent of his sales being exports, 90 per cent of that going to the US. He’s looking farther afield, to emerging markets like China and India, but shipping logistics present a major hurdle both domestically and abroad.

“It’s a blur,” he said, adding that most small firms would like to find a logistics person to handle it for them. “It’s almost like speaking a different language.

“There’s a huge demand for our products overseas but the problem is the (shipping) logistics. It’s a real nightmare. We get an unbelievable amount of requests from China and India but we can’t trust the logistics companies to give us accurate shipping information. I want to grow. I need to go wherever it’s going to be busy in the world. But Customs and freight companies are always changing things.”

Keeping track of ever-changing Customs requirements and shipping rates is a full-time job most smaller firms can’t afford. Even finding someone with the big carriers to give accurate information or deal with customer complaints is almost impossible. “It’s frustrating. We can’t get hold of anyone with the carriers who matters, who can make changes.”

Vandersee’s solution is to have a “buying group” formed that could source better discount rates for its members based on the amount of business they’d bring, as a group, to carriers. He knows that would be a “monstrous” undertaking, but the structure already exists for someone willing to take it on.

Meanwhile, Vanderzee is focusing on keeping his costs down while following the lure of new markets as best he can.


With an increased labour shortage looming, governments and educators in the West are scrambling to find measures to offset what could be, and in some cases already is, a catastrophe for business and industry alike.

Indeed, as baby boomers retire in unprecedented numbers, employee gaps are expected right across Canada even as the economy rebounds from the downturns following 2009. It’s a time for innovative thinking and the premiers of Western Canada have started that discussion by suggesting they, not Ottawa, should have control over immigration. In any case, BC wants the cap on immigrants under the Provincial Nominee Program to rise from the current 3,500 annually to 5,000 this year and 6,500 a year after that.

In BC, the economy is expected to grow by a million jobs over the next decade. The BC Business Council says the province should be able to avoid the worst aspects of a labour shortage, thanks to migration from elsewhere in Canada, immigration, and a tendency for plus-60 men to find and hold jobs.

In a report late last year the Council said the next two decades will see labour force growth slow to 1.3 per cent or lower from the current three per cent. They predict there will be a growing demand for post-secondary credentials, shortages of managers and health care workers, regional mismatches between labour supply and demand, skills shortages and mismatches in certain regions, and barriers to immigrants participating fully in the labour market.

The Council believes some help could come from boosting participation by aboriginal and older workers, and temporary foreign workers. But the real solution lies in “training, training, training”, the report says. That means emphasizing apprenticeships, older worker upgrading, on-the-job training, partnering businesses with post-secondary institutions, and hybrid programs combining education and vocational training. (See page 19)

The BC government is taking steps to meet the challenges, said Pat Bell, Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation. New software has been developed that will ensure good data is available to those making decisions.

“We’re living in a new world,” he said. “It’s different than a few years ago, and we’re well down the path of collecting new data.”

Bell said government has spent considerable time talking with college and university presidents and the Industry Training Authority about realigning programs to focus on the current and future needs. In a month, he said, new data will be available to them to help with those decisions.

One of those shifts might be reducing the time needed to gain trades certification – now taking about four years for the combination of classroom education and work experience – down to two or three. “This is real critical; it’s where we hit the wall,” he said, adding that other stakeholders, including unions, will be brought into the discussion in about a month.

But a very real challenge will be getting people to move to where the need is, Bell said. Many of the available jobs are expected to be in Northern BC and many people are reluctant to make that move, despite the generally affordable housing, high wages and good standards of living available there. “Not a lot of people have moved from an urban area to a rural one and we need to encourage them to think about these opportunities,’ he said.

Northern Lights College in Northeastern BC is ready and able to meet the training needs. All it needs are more students.

“The college has the capacity and the ability to train a huge amount of students at all of our campuses,” said Jeff Lekstrom, Dean of Instruction, Trades, Apprenticeship and technology at Northern Lights. “But we lack the students. I have space in every program.”

Lekstrom attributes that to the low unemployment rate in the region; those who want to work are working and don’t want to go to school. It certainly isn’t because the college is lacking. It offers the top 11 trades that are in demand in Northeastern BC, with top accreditation for each. “We could double or triple shift, if we had the students,” he said.

It isn’t for lack of effort. College officials “go to the ends of the earth” advertising programs and recruiting students. But he said the core student base always will come from the sparsely populated Northeast. And that ensures that students trained in the north stay in the north, he said.

Lekstrom agrees that the aboriginal population, which traditionally features extremely high unemployment levels, is a resource to be tapped . . . and trained. He noted that the college is doing so, and is running a power engineering course at their Fort Nelson campus in partnership with Encana and Spectra Energy who want workers for the Horn River gas play. About 75 per cent of the students are aboriginal, he said. And the ITA also has aboriginal training initiatives. “But it’s a huge issue and we have to get a strategy in place.”

In another development, the BC Aboriginal Mine Training Association (BCAMTA) has announced a new funding agreement with the Northern Development Initiative Trust that provides for a five-year funding formula.

“This agreement will contribute to long term sustainability for our programming,” said David Watkins, BCAMTA board chair. “It is proof that BCAMTA’s results and its potential for future growth are recognized as important elements for economic development in central and northern British Columbia.”

BCAMTA collaborates with First Nations communities, mining and exploration companies, industry associations, government and educational institutions to create and deliver mine industry training and staffing programs.

The model develops skills training specifically for aboriginal students and focuses on matching the local workforce with local jobs. In less than two years BCAMTA has generated employment opportunities for more than 235 aboriginal candidates. Almost two-thirds of them have transitioned from unemployment. With a retention rate of 95 per cent, BCAMTA’s industry partners are seeing measurable impacts on turnover rates and recruitment costs.

“The BCAMTA model is very successful in training and placing First Nations members in BC’s growing mining sector,” said Janine North, CEO of the Northern Development Initiative Trust. “Our mandate is to foster business growth in central and northern BC. We believe this partnership is a good fit and will help to fill the skills gap the mining industry is experiencing.”

At the same time, college officials like Lekstrom are eyeing BC Finance Minister Kevin Falcon’s recent announcement that the provincial government wants to send able-bodied welfare recipients to the Northeast for work. Details are sketchy at this time but there are some indications that the province will provide money for housing and training for these potential employees.

“They could go into our programs if they meet the pre-requisites and can pay tuition,” Lekstrom said. “We can be a big-time help with career and college preparation and then they can go into trades programs.”

It’s no different in Alberta, where the provincial government is forecasting a labour shortage of up to 114,000 workers across all sectors by 2021, well above the 77,000 shortfall predicted just two years ago. Predictions are that the province will see 606,000 new jobs created by 2021, with only 492,000 people available to fill them. Areas of concern are the trades, health care, tourism, public service, restaurant and retail sectors. They also expect to tap into the aboriginal population to fill these gaps, as well as women, seniors, youth, people with disabilities and newcomers to the province.

“We’re focused on working with the available workforce we have now,” said Darrell Winwood, communications spokesman the Alberta Human Services ministry. He noted that Statistics Canada unemployment figures for February indicate an overall unemployment rate in Alberta of five per cent, with youth showing 8.3 per cent and off-reserve aboriginals at 11.2 per cent. “There are still opportunities out there and we want Albertans to have access to those jobs.”

The province, through its Building and Educating Tomorrow’s Workforce labour strategy, has been collaborating for several years with aboriginal communities, as well as funding more training programs, and partnering with business and industry. An example of this is the opening of the Local Opportunity Centre providing career, employment and entrepreneurship development in Conklin, a First Nations community in Northeastern Alberta. This was done in partnership with industry giants Conoco and Statoil and the Business Link, a non-profit business support group.

“Mitigating the labour shortage is a big job and government can’t do it alone,” said Winwood. “We’re in constant communication with business and industry, meeting with them one-on-one, and we’re always reviewing our plans and updating them.”

Education is important, too, he said. The province, through Alberta Works employment offices, offers help retraining those who wish to upgrade their jobs, and with the federal government, for mature workers.

In addition, there’s a major push to attract women to non-traditional trades through the Women Building Futures and Trades Work for Women programs. Both with women and aboriginals, their introduction into a workforce where they haven’t have much if any presence before means there will be some unique challenges, Winwood acknowledged.

“We’re working with (aboriginal) communities directly to understand what barriers exist for them,” he said, “and we’re working with business and industry to understand the challenges for women.”

Greg Weadick, Alberta Minister of Advanced Education and technology, agrees and said emphasis is being placed on measures to allow students to complete post-secondary education close to home – especially in rural areas, where just six per cent of all youth attend post-secondary schools, compared with 23 per cent in the Edmonton area, for example.

“One of the big pieces is attracting more rural and First Nation students into post-secondary and trades education. We want to be flexible to allow students to train close to home,” he said, noting that already 2,500 aboriginal students are in apprenticeship training programs in Alberta, and the number likely will increase significantly.

Measures that should help attain that goal include offering more online apprenticeship training courses, and a “very successful” Registered Apprenticeship Program that allows students to take trades courses while still attending high school, similar to the dual credit program offered through Northern Opportunities in Northeastern BC.

Weadick noted that business and industry are coming to the table to help, as exemplified by a sheet metal shop in Grande Prairie that opened its doors at night to allow training of high school students interested in a welding career, in a program partnered with the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and Grande Prairie Regional College.

Also, the new Education Act changes the latest high school graduating age to 21, which allows those who may have had difficulty with school, or who left for a time, to get their diploma. That could open the door for more aboriginal people to finish their high school education. And the province has implemented two per cent funding increases for post-secondary education in each of the next three years to give schools the flexibility to adjust their programming to meet needs.

“It gives them a change to grow a little bit, which is critical to long-term key training for our young people,” Weadick said.

“Skills development and youth, these are key pieces,” he said. He also stressed that while 11 per cent of Canadians are involved in the trades, Alberta trains 20 per cent of the nation’s apprentices. That means people move to Alberta elsewhere to get their training so the province is trying to “streamline” the process involved in obtaining Alberta certification for those who come from elsewhere.

Equally important is ensuring that those who wish to continue their education have the ability to do so. With that in mind, the Alberta government has “totally revamped” student funding requirements, he said.

While Alberta has more scholarships offered than all other Canadian provinces combined, the government has removed parental income calculations in student loans, revised restrictions on part-time income in students’ favour, waived calculation of single parents’ incomes, and removed the requirement that those returning to school after an absence must spend their RRSPs before being eligible for a student loan. Also, loan remissions are based on completion now and students completing will receive a $2,000 cheque, while a retention program geared to the needed skills sets ensures loans will be remitted if the graduate remains in Alberta for three years.

“We’re constantly working to adapt our training programs to meet the needs of industry and fields like health care,” Weadick said.

The labour deficit means more responsibility – and more opportunity – for training centres like Grande Prairie Regional College (GPRC). The college is the fourth-largest trainer of apprenticeship students in Alberta and Chris Laue, Dean of Trades, Agriculture and Environment, sees that expanding. To that end, GPRC could be building a new facility in Hinton that will allow students to take a full range of courses not now available there.

The role the college plays with the communities it serves was exemplified recently when GPRC was seen as key player in talks on regional sustainability among the municipalities of Grande Prairie, Beaverlodge, Sexsmith, Wembley and Hythe. A key focus of those discussions was the labour shortage plaguing almost all northern communities, a shortage that is seen as a regional concern.

GPRC also has formed a partnership with the Peace River School Division and Clear Hills County that will ensure the college participates in career fairs and that there is a closer integration between them and the public school system. Laue said that could include GPRC instructors teaching training programs in the schools and/or having high school students take courses at GPRC. School officials are also looking at the BC dual credit system that allows students to earn post-secondary credits while still completing high school.

“We’re putting additions onto some of our programs and we’re working with industry to address some of their needs. We’re trying to bring on more certification and diploma programs covering technical training in apprenticeship programs.”

Laue agrees that aboriginal and female students are a growth area to be developed. With that in mind, GPRC has set up “cohorts” of First Nations who are pre-employment or in the first year of apprenticeship training, to identify their needs and help them determine where they will go when their training is completed. Attention also is paid to cultural differences that could affect their assimilation into the workforce, he said. “That way we can appreciate where they come from and deliver programs that work better for them.”

Other initiatives involve attracting more women to trades, he said. “We’re exposing them to a number of trades so they can select what they’re interested in. We give them that introductory exposure, then they get work experience, and it can blossom into a trades career.”

Co-operation is key to filling the skilled labour gaps, Laue said. “The only way we’ll be successful as a training institution is if we connect with the local market we serve. We definitely need to link with the communities around us and identify the needs and see what we can deliver.”