We must avoid the Australian experience

Monday, February 24, 2014

Tom Sigurdson | Executive Director

In 1989, Hollywood produced the movie Field of Dreams. The most famous line from the movie was "If you build it, he will come." And, with that understanding, Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner, built a baseball diamond in the middle of his Iowa cornfield.

In present-day British Columbia, there are a number of liquefied natural gas proponents who are keen to develop the B.C. LNG industry but it begs the question, "If they come, will we build it?"

There are 12 proponents considering LNG investment. The potential investment is multiple tens of billions of dollars. (Some are shown on Pg. 18.) Each project will require, at peak construction, thousands of our skilled members to bring their talents to the job. While it is highly unlikely all projects will proceed, it is very likely that within a few years a few proponents will begin construction. And then, what will happen? If there is no plan to schedule the development of these and other mega-projects, there will be chaos throughout our industry.

When Australia developed its LNG industry, the various project proponents jumped in all at once which created a logistical nightmare for everyone involved. For Australian skilled tradespeople, the sudden explosion of work opportunities was, quite frankly, out of control. Foreign workers, brought in to bring some projects to completion, made up a staggering 50% of the total workforce. Fifty per cent! We cannot allow a similar situation to occur in British Columbia.

Whenever the final investment decisions are made and whatever projects proceed, there will be an increased demand for skilled trades. Along with thousands of construction jobs, there should be opportunities for young people to begin and complete their apprenticeship over the course of LNG development. But these opportunities for employment and apprenticeship completions must benefit British Columbians first and foremost. After all, the resource belongs to British Columbians. Those of us in construction understand that we belong to a mobile workforce. We move from job to job, throughout the province and the country. On occasion, we take our skills south of the border or overseas. That is the nature of our industry. We go to where the work is, especially when our local economy is not able to provide us with work to support our families.

When LNG developments get under way, our first source for skilled tradespeople should be British Columbians (making equally certain we are providing training and employment opportunities for First Nations people and British Columbians who reside in the project areas). Our second source should be the rest of Canada. If we are not able to fill the demand for skilled trades from across the country, we should turn to our traditional source which is our fraternal union locals in the United States. Some proponents, and indeed some politicians, are already planning to import some of the workforce from offshore. While there may come a time for that, we need to be very clear about when and how offshore workers are invited to come to B.C. projects—only when the supply of skilled British Columbian, Canadian and U.S. travellers has been exhausted and the how is answered by agreement that foreign workers work under the same terms and conditions that we enjoy. Contractors should not be able to exploit a foreign workforce to develop the LNG industry in British Columbia. (See article on Pg. 12.)

There are opportunities and there are challenges. We will continue to address the challenges so we can first maximize the opportunities for British Columbians.

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