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B.C.'s recovery economy: Fast-changing job market spurs new approach to training

Special report: Reskilling, upskilling and micro-credentials key to adjusting to massive workplace disruption
B.C.’s construction sector faces a serious skilled labour shortage | Rob Kruyt

British Columbia started 2020 with an enviable low unemployment rate of 4.5%.

But between March and April, the province lost 396,500 jobs, pushing the unemployment rate to 13.4% in May, due to pandemic lockdowns and travel restrictions, according to the B.C. government.

About 363,000 of those jobs were recovered by the end of 2020, reducing the unemployment rate to 7.2%.

“We’re just 32,000 jobs below the February level,” said Greg D’Avignon, president of the Business Council of British Columbia (BCBC). “We lost 20,000 part-time jobs and we gained 24,000 full-time jobs.”

But many of the new jobs created in 2020 were government-created public sector jobs, D’Avignon added.

The B.C. government added 30,000 jobs as it ramped up the hiring of 7,000 new health-care workers, hundreds of contact tracers and other public sector positions. The private sector is still 50,000 jobs short of where it was in February 2020, D’Avignon said.

Hardest hit was the hospitality and tourism sectors, which suffered a “staggering” 57% decline, according to a BCBC fall job-market report.

Even the construction sector, though deemed an essential service, experienced a 15% decline in activity in 2020 compared with 2019. It expects another 5% decrease in 2021.

Despite that contraction, B.C.’s construction industry anticipates wages in that sector will jump 7.7% in 2021 and 2022 because the industry still can’t find enough skilled workers. The trucking sector is also experiencing a shortage of drivers.

The bottom line is that, if you lost your job in a nightclub or hotel and you don’t mind getting your hands a little dirty, there are plenty of high-paying jobs in construction, largely due to an aging, retiring workforce.

“We are going over a demographic cliff,” said Chris Gardner, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA).

A recent survey of ICBA members showed 100% of contractors in B.C. reporting shortages of glaziers, insulators, steel fabricators and mobile crane operators.

Getting the economy back on track in 2021 will require reskilling, retraining and upskilling, as some jobs disappear, new jobs open up, and as automation, e-commerce and shifts in consumer habits change the nature of work.

“One of the biggest things that government should be looking at and can do is to fund more training spaces,” Gardner said. “At technical and vocational colleges, there is a huge shortage of spaces.”

D’Avignon doesn’t think simply throwing more money at universities, colleges and vocational schools to add more seats is the right away to address skills training.

“You can’t just go out and train a bunch of people and hope they land somewhere,” D’Avignon said. “It’s got to be demand driven.”

He said the way vocational training is delivered needs to be changed. Transitioning from one job to another may not necessarily require a person to go back to school for months or years. It might require just a single course.

The notion of “micro-skilling” is starting to take hold – something both the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) and B.C. government are embracing. Micro-credentialing is targeted training to help workers quickly upgrade skills in specific areas. It’s training that can be done in as little as one week.

Due to funding constraints, BCIT has a wait list that stretches into mid-2022 for programs like carpentry, metal fabrication, electrical trades and iron working, said Jennifer Figner, BCIT’s associate vice-president, academic.

Physical constraints added to the problem in 2020, as class sizes had to be reduced to meet physical distancing requirements.

“Where we could have had 16 students in the class, we have to have eight now, so it takes us longer to get them through,” Figner said.

BCIT is now working with industry to facilitate upskilling through micro-credentials, which allow workers to get specific skills without having to enrol in a full program.

The B.C. government is spending $47.5 million on training, reskilling and upskilling. As part of that spending, it plans to issue 2,000 micro-credentials by March. It also plans to provide 2,500 British Columbians with short-term skills training and make 1,250 placements in Indigenous skills-training programs.

In the coming months, BCIT will launch micro-credentialing programs in three key areas: mass timber construction, general trades and digital transformation. The latter program is likely to have wide applications in a variety of sectors.

“So many industries, what they’re recognizing is, with the way that work has transitioned to a more digital online platform, that there are digital skills that people can add really quickly, whatever their existing position is,” Figner said.

Another organization in this realm is Palette Skills. Co-developed by Arvind Gupta, former CEO of MITACS, Palette facilitates collaboration between industry, government and post-secondary institutions to provide targeted reskilling and upskilling.

D’Avignon, who sits on Palette’s board of directors, cites a car salesman and a high-end retailer with a rapidly expanding e-commerce division as an example of how Palette can bridge skills gaps. The e-commerce department, when hiring, might look only for someone with high-tech skills and never consider hiring a car salesman.

“The tech sector’s often quite siloed, and it doesn’t look at salespeople unless they are tech people first,” D’Avignon said.  “If I’m narrowing my search for talent based on what I think are the skills I need within my sector, I am ignoring a whole bunch of other people.

“What Palette has done [is] take people with really good sales skills, orient them to what the technology business is, and in the span of just several weeks found companies that would never even consider a resumé from an individual, and not only hire them on but they are thriving in those environments.”

He points out that it can take 18 months to get a new program or curriculum approved, and then two to four years for students to graduate.

“[With] the pace of change that’s happening in the economy, that doesn’t work anymore,” D’Avignon said. “So we need to find ways … to expedite some of that decision-making to really make sure that the knowledge you gain is applicable to the marketplace a bit more expeditiously than we’ve had the luxury of in the past.” 

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