BC Views: ‘Vocational school’ back in style

The B.C. government has rolled out its ambitious overhaul of the public education system

The B.C. government has rolled out its ambitious overhaul of the public education system, from kindergarten to graduate school, much to the horror of its left-wing establishment.

The formal title is B.C.’s Skills For Jobs Blueprint: Re-engineering Education and Training. It’s designed to dovetail with the Harper regime’s Canada Job Grant that requires employers to co-sponsor training spaces so they will hire the students at the end.

The elementary and middle school curriculums are being revised to increase emphasis on hands-on experience. High school and post-secondary skilled trades programs are getting more money, but it’s going to be shifted from under-performing programs that don’t lead to jobs.

Premier Christy Clark took another swipe at the bias of B.C.’s system before heading to Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong on another liquefied natural gas sales trip. She noted that 20 per cent of B.C. students, and nearly half of aboriginal students, don’t finish high school.

“Not only are there kids who don’t graduate, there are kids who graduate, go out and get one or two credentials before they finally find their way into a skills training program,” said Ms. Clark, who had her own wander through university campuses before going into politics.

A couple of weeks ago, Simon Fraser University president Andrew Petter downplayed the “relatively small” skilled trades shortage for B.C. industry.

“We should not be engaged in a zero-sum kind of battle for dollars,” Petter protested. That’s exactly what he and other university executives are looking at, and it will be based on the latest graduate employment data and labour demand forecasts.

One of the key architects of this sweeping plan is Jessica McDonald, who shook up the public service while serving as Gordon Campbell’s deputy minister.

Her report on trades training confirms what Campbell’s critics in the labour movement have long said — the government’s 10-year experiment with the Industry Training Authority (ITA) is a rudderless mess.

“Certain partners, particularly organized labour, feel marginalized,” McDonald wrote. “Others, particularly employers and employers’ associations, do not feel heard within the system.

Over the recent past, several new directions have been introduced such as de-regulation of trades and modular training that have caused strain because they were not fully inclusive during development, were seen to benefit single interests, and they impacted the whole system.”

The ITA board is being replaced with union representation restored, and advisory councils from industrial employers will update their hiring needs.

The B.C. Federation of Labour and the construction unions have all but abandoned the NDP after Adrian Dix’s disastrous pitch for urban anti-industry votes last year.

B.C. Fed president Jim Sinclair was an early advocate for rescuing skilled trades from the second-class status they received in a culture fixated on university for two generations.

That culture has created glaring problems. There are too many institutions offering the same courses. As with health care, block funding is handed out without any serious effort to measure the results. For many students, university has become an extension of adolescence, finding one’s self through philosophy or film studies.

Employers get their share of blame from Ms. McDonald. Not only did they chop up trades training to make it cheaper to obtain, their preferred source of skilled workers has been to poach from other employers who paid to train them.

Skills-based employment data will be made public for students to make career choices. Students coming out of high school will have a way to assess what they can expect after $50,000 or more is spent on higher education.

It’s about time.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc .

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