The province must act soon to deal with a looming skilled worker shortage, according to a report released this week by a group of B.C. universities.
"As we know better than our southern neighbours [in the province], economic activity and industrial activity are increasing in the north quite dramatically," UNBC president George Iwama said Friday. "The skill shortage is something we all have to address quite quickly, with the colleges in concert with the universities."
Iwama is the chairman of the Research Universities Council of BC (RUCBC), which produced a six-page report asking the government to commit money to add more spaces for students, provide more financial aid and create a permanent organization where faculty members can apply for provincial research grants.
Advanced Education Minister John Yap said the post-secondary system is already designed to deal with the looming job crunch, citing low tuition rates and a recent commitment of $75 million to upgrade training facilities.
"Our government is doing things differently than in the past," he said in a statement. "Were working with colleges and universities in a collaborative way, and looking at innovative solutions during tough economic times, and a changing labor market."
The RUCBC report, called Opportunity Agenda for BC, asks for 11,000 new students spots at colleges and universities over four years at a cost of $130 million. Of those 3,600 would be for university undergraduate positions, 3,000 for those pursing graduate degrees and 4,400 for those interested in college and trades programs.
The latter group is often identified as the key area that needs to be addressed when it comes to worker shortages, but Iwama said many jobs that require university education also face potential shortages.
"There are some university programs and university training that's needed, such as engineers and social workers and project planners," he said. "We're asking for an awareness that university training is important as well as college training."
Just how many of those new seats would go to UNBC or CNC isn't known yet, but Iwama said both local institutions would get some portion of the new spots if the idea is approved.
The report also calls on the government to commit to giving every qualified student a chance to attend post-secondary education by providing grants worth $90 million, of which $51 million would require new funding.
Of that new money, $15 million would be set aside for merit-based awards for graduate students, an area Iwama said is key to sustaining top notch research in the province.
"Certainly for us with mining or forestry or bio-energy, the graduate students work with the faculty members and professors and play a very important part in our research," he said.
Finally, the group wants the province to make Innovate BC a permanent feature and become a one-stop shop where researchers can seek provincial grants to match those already handed out by the federal government. The ad hoc system currently in place is unduly time consuming, according to Iwama.
"What we'd like to see is Innovate BC being a permanent part of government so we don't have to keep asking for this on a one-off basis," he said. "It's not asking for any additional funding, it's just to make sure the matching funds from the province is there for our researchers."
Yap said there are some good ideas in the report, but the cost of the proposals remain a concern.
"All of these recommendations have merit but first, we need to balance the budget," he said.