The Business Council of British Columbia (BCBC) conference, Addressing Skills Shortages: 2005, attracted a cross section of employers, educators, government officials, labour representatives and others from across the country. Keynote speakers were federal deputy Human Resources & Skills Development Minister Alan Nymark, BC Finance Minister Colin Hansen, Ida Chong, provincial Advanced Education Minister, and the president and CEO of 2010 LegaciesNow, Marion Lay.
Over the two days, attendees heard sobering numbers outlining the potential dimensions of the problem. For instance, Nichola Wade, service sector and partnerships director with BC’s Ministry of Energy & Mines, said the Oil and Gas sector alone will generate 8500 job openings over the next five years, while go2 CEO Arlene Keis said the tourism industry as a whole will need to find another 84,000 workers over the coming decade.
The reasons for the looming shortfall are varied. Baby-boomer retirement is common to almost every sector. According to Teck Cominco human resources vice president Jim Utley, BC mining companies alone will have to replace 38,000 retiring workers. But there are other problems as well, including a negative perception (among young people especially) of the oil and gas industries, restrictive collective agreements in the forestry sector, and sheer abundance of work in the construction industry where tens of billions worth of projects have already started and more are in the pipeline across the province.
However, the message wasn’t all doom and gloom. Many speakers outlined both private and public initiatives aimed at dealing with the problem. A common response has been greater commitment education and training, both by individual companies and industry associations.
Many employers are also looking at minimizing their potential problems by focusing on ways to keep the employees they already have and attract new ones. Terasen Pipelines Inc. human resources vice president Ian Anderson said his company, Canada’s third largest utility, is giving a lot of attention to factors such as positive work environments, strong leadership, and a clear vision for the future that can generate passion among employees.
One area of ambivalence was compensation competition, with some speakers decrying the potentially ruinous cost of bidding up pay rates for scarce workers, and others pointing out the possibly even higher cost of losing a valuable employee if the compensation card isn’t played.
For many years the province and the country have relied on immigration to fill job vacancies - Karen Jackson, assistant deputy minister for Human Resources and Skills Development, said immigrants already account for 70 per cent of the country’s labour force growth. Many employers have been critical of many immigrants’ lack of preparation and knowledge of Canadian conditions, while immigrants and employers have been pushing for greater recognition of educational or professional credentials obtained overseas. During discussion, it was suggested that there needs to be greater focus on providing newly arrived immigrants with communication skills and relevant information about the norms in the Canadian workplace.
Overall, a post conference survey showed attendees appreciated the mix of business and educational leaders and found especially valuable the networking opportunities it afforded and the tangible examples of approaches and programs they had learned about.