Friday, November 01, 2013

It's time we had an education system that is geared towards skilled trades

If there is one thing the recent provincial election made clear, it's that blue collar jobs still matter in British Columbia.  Premier Christy Clark, did many a photo op while sporting a hard hat, while NDP leader Adrian Dix suddenly announced that he was opposed to the twinning of the Kinder Morgan pipeline.
The "Kinder surprise" as it has come to be known in political circles took the BC NDP from a twenty point lead to a devastating upset electoral defeat.  It was a clear message from voters, especially middle class and blue collar workers that they wanted a government that was friendly to business investment and resource sector development.
This is because most people understand that the resource sector and construction trades are one of the few areas where a young person can hope to obtain the kind of job that allows them to live on and perhaps even start a family.  Those jobs used to be plentiful but now with low paying service sector jobs burgeoning and manufacturing jobs all but non-existent, it is the skilled trades person or contractor who now has the best chance at making a middle class income.
The time has come where a skilled trade is more valuable than a university degree at yet our education system continues to behave as if the exact opposite was true.  A study from CIBC World Markets, by Benjamin Tal and Emanuella Enenajor, says that Canada has the highest proportion of adults with post-secondary degrees in the developed world.
Yes there are still areas of study such as engineering and medicine where graduates can still expect to make high incomes, but for many other graduates all they are left with is a significant amount of debt and very little in the way of enhanced job prospects.
In fact if you are a fine arts graduate you can expect to earn less than if you are just a high school graduate and as the CIBC study states:
"Narrowing employment and earning premiums for higher education mean that, on average, Canada is experiencing an excess supply of post-secondary graduates."
At the same time we are experiencing a shortage of skilled trades persons.  Why has this happened?  For one reason over the past 50 years, there has been far more in the way of resources directed towards universities than institutions that teach skilled trades.

For another there was this erroneous assumption that in the 21st century automation would replace all the jobs where you might get your fingernails dirty.  Yes you can use a robot to weld a car on an assembly line, but it doesn't work so good in terms of running medical gas lines through a hospital.

On the other hand no one envisioned a world in which computer code writing, accounting and even legal services would start to be outsourced to low paid but well educated people in places like Bangalore India.

In recent years there has been a growing movement to bring in skilled workers from other countries and in other instances there has been a movement to undermine the red seal certification program.  These are short term fixes and in the long run damaging to Canada's economy and public safety.

What we instead need to do is have a public education system that encourages people to become skilled tradespersons.  That means having well equipped and well funded wood working, metal, electrical and mechanics programs in all high schools throughout British Columbia.  It means turning the focus of our colleges away from being wannabe universities and towards skilled trades and designing curriculum in conjunction with British Columbia's contractors, unions and the Industry Training Authority so that credits and courses are readily transferrable.

We need to have post secondary institutions that are more responsive to the market place so that funding priorities line up with where the job market is at.  High schools and post secondary institutions also need to be far more aware of what jobs are actually in demand and be far more forthcoming with providing that information to students.

Why is it that most students graduate from highschool and even university without a clue as to how to start a business, the power of compounding interest, or even what they should study in order to maximise their chances of being successfully employed?

As consumers of increasingly expensive post secondary education, students should have the right to make informed decisions including which course of study gives them the best chance of paying off their student loans without going bankrupt or ending up as part of the growing ranks of the working poor.

By fostering skilled trades and greater business acumen we will also increase the number of successful small business owners.  This is critical as this is the group that, outside of government, does most of the hiring nowadays.

I know that my own son who is still in high school, is far more interested in making money in the oil patch than he is in being another post secondary student with a crushing debt load and meagre job prospects.  He wants to develop skills and work experience that will make him valuable not just in Canada but around the world, more young Canadians need to follow his example.