One hundred thousand is the magic number of jobs that the BC government predicts the Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) industry will create. The employment projections are based on five LNG plants operating by 2020. So far, none of the multinational companies considering building LNG plants in BC has made a final investment decision, but Premier Christy Clark has been busy putting strategies in place to prove BC will have the manpower when needed. But the numbers are not adding up.
CDS Research Ltd. states the construction phase of an LNG export facility, lasting 48 months, is expected to peak at 2,500-3,000 workers. Plant operation is 200 jobs plus support services for maintenance.
“Most people use 2-3 as an employment multiplier – if there are 1,000 direct jobs there would be 2,000-3,000 indirect jobs. The BC government used a multiplier of 30. So that means for one job in an LNG plant, there would be 30 other jobs. It’s nonsense,” explains Green Party Deputy Minister Andrew Weaver. “My worry is that people will be fed the pipe dream and our province is buying into it.”
Literally. In fact, the province will spend $29 million to help secure LNG investments in BC in the next three years. Yet, as Jim Sinclair, president of the BC Federation of Labour, stated in a Globe and Mail article, there is no genuine commitment to skills training. “We are pinning much of our economic future on an LNG project and they require skills training to start today. This is a critical area and they have basically frozen the budgets for the next three years and they cut employment training.”
The government has announced over $160 million to be allocated to re-engineering education and training as part of BC’s Skills for Jobs Blueprint: Re-engineering Education and Training, to retool the education sector from primary school to apprenticeship programs. The Blueprint comes without new funding, so resources will be taken from other segments of the education system. On top of that the provincial government’s 2013 budget targeted a $50 million cut in funding to the post-secondary system applied over three years.
The Challenge for Welders
One of the top three LNG construction jobs is welding. In order to be endorsed for pipe and pressure tickets, which is what is needed for pipe welding, a person needs to have their Red Seal certificate training. The Industry Training Authority (ITA), the Crown agency responsible for oversight of the industry training system for credentialed trades, has recently approved a new welder apprenticeship training model for BC. Traditionally, the welding program delivered by BC institutions was based on a self-paced model, with an option to take the apprenticeship model. The mandatory change is puzzling to many welding instructors who believe that the new model will make it more difficult for welders to receive training.
“In 2008-09, welding fell under an arm of the ITA, the Resource Training Organization (RTO), designed by the government to oversee the management and development of apprenticeship training for the resource sector in BC. Our welding training program had a complete review before we fell into the RTO. The industry was happy with the model of the welding training program in BC,” says Jim Carson, Chair of the Welding Articulation Committee of BC, a curriculum discussion arena for welding instructors throughout the province.
“The RTO put together a small working group that was supposed to be representative of the industry, they held six regional meetings in BC, with a small number of seats for local representation. It was clear there was a pre-conceived agenda and outcome, and that the meetings were put together to fulfill an appearance of due diligence. We believe it was to save money, not about producing more welders.”
One of the challenges posed by the switch to the new training model is the cut in half of the completion time of the final third year training level, which was Level B. Upon review of the new model in 2012, the Welding Articulation Committee stated they did not support it. Many of the instructors are baffled as to how to implement it.
“The same curriculum is expected for the B level which used to be a 16 week program, it’s now eight weeks,” says Chris Udy, a Campbell River campus, North Island College (NIC) instructor. “Inside that eight weeks we have an obligation to do 40% theory teaching. With 16 weeks of practical componency requirement to get through, students have to do it in 5 weeks. The direction I’ve gotten from my administration is that we will make sure that each one of those competencies will be fulfilled correctly, and not just skimmed over. The ITA provides the majority of funding to the welding program and they have agreed to pick up the tab for the remaining weeks, if required, but not the student’s tuition. “The new program was rolled out too soon. I spoke with an ex-director of the ITA and he agreed.”
Due to a continuous enrollment stream in the North Island College program, the Campbell River campus is the provincial test pilot for the new apprenticeship model. With that has come some confusion. New student, Jason Squires, who has 14 years welding experience and wants to get his Red Seal ticket, says finding out information from the ITA to enroll in the training program was a frustrating experience. He could see how a new student would be faced with several roadblocks to their training. NIC instructor, Terry Waters agrees, “The welding system right now is so overly complicated, we’re having trouble figuring out what to teach our students.”
Who Will Hire Apprentices?
The greatest challenge for prospective welders is the switch to an apprenticeship model. Unlike Alberta, BC does not mandate that businesses hire either a journeyman welder or an apprentice. As Udy and Waters explain, if someone wanted to work as a welder in BC, they got a job and the employer could train them. Often, the employers do not want to have the welders trained up because it is cheaper for an employer to keep an un-ticketed labourer. As soon as an employee gets a Red Seal ticket, he has more employability and may head to Northern BC or Alberta, where many of the high paying welding jobs are.
“Right now, there are not the shops available in the smaller communities to take on an apprentice, so I’m not sure how the new model is going to work,” says Udy. “We need to make it mandatory for the employers to take an apprentice, or there is no incentive for them to buy into it.”
As an owner of Progressive Metal Fabricators in Campbell River for seven years, Udy had apprentices in his shop and says that apprentices did not cost him extra. “If I’m comparing an apprentice to what a journeyman can produce on an hourly basis, certainly an apprentice doesn’t produce at the same level, but I’m not paying him at the same level.”
Temporary Foreign Workers
With these new hurdles put in place for training welders, the prospect of using temporary foreign workers for LNG projects doesn’t seem so far-fetched. There’s the federal-provincial deal in March that includes a commitment to encourage the active use of the Temporary Foreign Worker program. The BC Ministry of Natural Gas Development has announced an “action plan” to get the credentials of foreign workers quickly recognized and certified in BC. The Canadian Welding Bureau (CWB), which acts as administrators of the relevant welding CSA standards and offer certifications, is providing introductory welding training in the Philippines, and Canadian jobs for welders are being advertised there.
Michael Colbert, President and CEO of Progress Energy Canada (which was bought outright in 2012 for $5.5 billion by Malaysian state-owned PETRONAS), poised to own one of the first LNG projects, has said, “Ultimately we will look at the manpower side, which is going to be a constraint. We are working with the Canadian government for immigration and alternatives.”
“If I’m an employer and I’m trying to get workers and I say I need CWB ticketed welders and we just punched out 1000 new students, but only 50 have CWB, it looks like we don’t have the workers. It is expensive for an individual to get a CWB ticket. Unlike some institutions, North Island College does not pay for CWB tickets, so it costs the student $450 per ticket to go down to Nanaimo and get tested.
“If a company is mandated to save money and get cheap labour, and they don’t want to have apprentices, and can’t find enough employees locally, they can import cheaper labour from abroad,” says Udy. “And lo and behold there is the CWB in the Philippines, setting that up.”
In response to Minister Rich Coleman’s statement that only foreign workers, such as those in the Philippines, possess skills for some specialized work needed for LNG, the NIC instructors balked at the notion.
“Everybody who learns how to weld properly will have a particular skill set,” says Udy. “There may be some differences in how you have to treat the material as it is being welded. That is simply educating the welder. Industry hasn’t been coming to our colleges and asking what can we do to set up for LNG job skills. What Coleman is saying is more of a prophecy than anything else. This may be what they heard is coming down the pike, because if you destroy the training then you don’t have an avenue for welders to get the training they need to secure jobs.”
Susan MacVittie is Managing Editor of the Watershed Sentinel and has a family member who is going through the process of becoming a certified Red Seal welder.