Future Success Requires Support for Apprentices

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Tom Sigurdson

For all the talk about all the work that we may see in the near future, there are some very real concerns about the supply of skilled labour should two or more of the megaprojects proceed simultaneously.

The liquefied natural gas (LNG) proponents consider the availability of skilled labour as a major factor in all their discussions which lead to their final investment decision. The LNG proponents, the government, and the BC Building Trades do not want to see what happened in the development of the Australian LNG industry repeated here.

In Australia there were as many as seven major LNG projects underway at one time. Each project required thousands of workers and it did not take very long for the Australian skilled workforce to be completely depleted. Thousands of temporary foreign workers were imported. At one point almost half of the workforce was made up of foreign workers. And even with all of those foreign workers, there were still specialty trades required which could not be found anywhere in the world. The lack of specialty trades created a bottleneck which slowed production which, in turn, caused a tremendous increase in the overall project development costs.

The LNG proponents, government, and the BC Building Trades want to ensure the projects are built by British Columbians and Canadians before we access any temporary foreign workers. Foreign workers should only be used as a last resort.

The Kitimat Modernization Project Labour Agreement provides an excellent example of how the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) should work. At peak construction, approximately 4,000 of our members were dedicated to the project, 3,000 on site with 1,000 on turn-around. Over the course of the project, there were a few trades that experienced a shortage and they accessed their workforce from local unions in the United States. At one point, there were a few hundred skilled Americans on travel cards working the project. As Canadians, and particularly British Columbians, became available, the Americans returned to their home local. At present, there are fewer than 40 Americans on travel cards—less than 1% of the construction workforce. This is how the TFWP is supposed to work!

In preparation for what may be extraordinary investment in the development of the LNG industry, we need to do all we can to ensure our organizations have the skilled members to build the projects. Our training facilities offer apprenticeship programs that are second to none in B.C. We graduate 85 to 90% of all of our trainees/apprentices. We could do more but we are hamstrung by the lack of placements for apprentices to learn their skills on the tools.

Forward thinking contractors are doing their part by employing apprentices. But we need more progressive contractors. Some contractors and their associations oppose apprentice placements. This is asinine. Where the hell do they think they are going to get skilled journeymen five and ten years down the road?

To make matters worse, governments at all levels are not stepping up to the plate and making apprentice placements part of all publicly funded projects. The government of Canada recently announced it will not require contractors working on public projects to hire apprentices. For all the talk and hyperbole surrounding skills development in our province, the B.C. government does not have a policy on apprentice placement opportunities. In fact, in B.C., if you take into account all Crown Corporations, all health boards, school boards, and every city and town, there are only 304 apprentices employed by these publicly funded bodies!

Everyone should understand that it will be our members with their high degree of skills that will build the projects. But without opportunities for our apprentices to hone their skills, too many projects will be crewed by workers from outside B.C.

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