Op-Ed: First priority is to invest in the skills and knowledge of the young workforce
By Adrian Dix
When I was growing up in British Columbia, there was clearly a gap between rich and poor, but there was also a large and thriving middle class. And there were opportunities for working people to advance: to get an education, to buy a house and to build a better future for their children. The social mobility that resulted was more than just positive for individuals, it helped drive growth and prosperity for the whole economy.
Today, the gap between rich and poor is widening in B.C. — witness the highest child poverty rates in Canada year after year. And the middle class is shrinking. If action is not taken, this will be the first generation in history to see fewer opportunities than their parents, a fate we can and must avoid.
Of course, the world economy faces serious challenges. British Columbia is not immune to the ill winds blowing in from Europe and the U.S. We do not live on an isolated self-contained island. We rely on trade — in many cases with those very countries undergoing economic upheaval. We are, however, fortunate to live in Canada and in a province less dependent on the U.S. and Europe. Increasingly, we rely on our growing trade with Asia, although this economic buffer may be cold comfort to the many thousands of British Columbians out of work, underemployed, or struggling to keep their heads above water.
We have, in effect, two significant problems in addition to the overriding issue of a sustainable environment. First, our province is growing too slowly to create the jobs we need.
Indeed, economic growth under the current government has been historically low compared to previous governments, in spite of relatively high commodity prices.
Second, our province has the highest rates of inequality in Canada. The gap between the top 20 per cent and bottom 20 per cent is the largest in the country. From the OECD to the Conference Board of Canada to those homemade signs at Occupy movement protests, there is now a realization that inequality represents a significant social problem.
During times like these, B.C. needs to avoid Band-Aid solutions, but set in motion now the kind of policies that will build a foundation for future economic growth.
In this light, the top priority for our provincial government is to invest in the skills and knowledge of the workforce – especially young people. Such an investment allows everyone the opportunity to pursue their dreams in an increasingly difficult labour market.
The government’s own labour market projections foresee B.C. being on track to suffer from a shortage of 61,500 skilled workers by the decade’s end.
It also states that 80 per cent of future jobs will require a level of post-secondary education, and jobs requiring degrees or certification are growing at twice the rate of other employment.
For young people I meet in every part of British Columbia, increasing barriers to post-secondary education — from cuts to costs — are barriers to opportunity and hope.
A cross-section of B.C. industry leaders — forestry, manufacturing, high-tech, energy — have all raised the need to address the looming labour shortage, during meetings with me.
Their worries are echoed by the likes of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the B.C. Federation of Labour, which count the skills crisis as one of the top threats to economic competitiveness and a main cause of future inequality.
The growing labour deficit undermines B.C.’s ability to increase production, and attract and maintain investment. In a recent Sun op-ed, Peter Jeffrey from the B.C. Division of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters reported that the skills shortage is already limiting business growth. Infrastructure builds are at risk of not being completed on time or on budget, causing delays for private-sectors projects and increasing the level of debt incurred by the province. Improving our labour force is not only key to preventing high rates of structural unemployment in B.C. — a province where there are people without jobs and jobs without people — but it will also provide us with a competitive advantage over other jurisdictions.
The equality gap and its attendant skills shortage are why the B.C. NDP has presented policies to ensure young people have access to the post-secondary education they need, and a plan to pay for it.
Governments are increasingly shifting costs onto the middle class at the very time when many families are already squeezed.
The middle class is not and has never been merely the outcome of economic decisions made by powerful interests. For generations, innovation and economic growth have come from the everyday working people of British Columbia.
For industry, for our economy, for our environment and our society, we must ensure that future generations have access to knowledge, skills, and opportunity.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Vancouver Sun.