Skills gap needs to turn into skills action - Vancouver Sun OpEd, May 1, 2013

British Columbia needs skilled and educated workers to fuel our economy. My advice to those responsible for guiding B.C.'s future is to think of advanced education and skills training as an essential investment for the province and to ensure that future budgets set out a multi-year plan to address this critical need.

The latest jobs figures from Statistics Canada show a spike in unemployment in B.C. up seven per cent in March, from 6.3 per cent in February. And while these numbers do not paint a rosy picture, they mask the urgent need to address the growing skills mismatch that threatens our province's economic and social development. Growing employment opportunities and an aging demographic mean there will be an estimated 1.1 million new job openings in B.C. by 2020.

The discrepancy between the demand and supply of skilled labour - known as the skills gap - is one of the biggest challenges B.C. and Canada face.

Recently, research university presidents have advanced an agenda that promotes more investment in university graduate seats and research. There is no doubt that, in the long term, this type of investment has value. Past governments have invested heavily in these areas. Yet the most pressing need is to prepare young people, mature students, workers requiring retraining, Aboriginal people and immigrants with the advanced skills needed to fill positions created by the skills gap.

Business and industry are calling out for these job-ready workers. The prime minister has also identified the skills gap as the most critical economic issue facing the country. All of this talk needs to be put into action. Government needs to turn its attention to investing in the education and advanced skills training offered by colleges, institutes and teaching universities to produce graduates who will be productive contributors to a prosperous and competitive labour market.

At no time in our history have we faced such a demand for highly skilled employees. Seventy-eight per cent of the forecast job openings will require some form of post-secondary education, with the largest demand in occupations such as construction, hydro-electricity, oil and gas, shipbuilding, transportation, technology, health care and telecommunications - occupations that require a college degree or trades certification. And, the problem isn't way off in the future. No less than 30 per cent of businesses and industries now indicate they can't get people with the right skills to meet demand - twice what the rate was in 2010.

B.C. faces significant financial challenges and the allocation of scarce resources is always a difficult task when there are many competing demands.

Whoever forms government after May 14 will face some tough choices. But if the necessary investment in advanced education and skills training is not made now, it will leave us with a stagnate economy unable to generate the tax revenue needed to support the highly valued services and quality of life that British Columbians have come to expect.

Jim Reed is president of BC Colleges, a consortium representing 11 public, community colleges serving almost 200,000 students annually with campuses in more than 60 communities throughout British Columbia.