I don’t pay as much attention as I should on this blog to matters British Columbian, mostly because I don’t get out there often enough. But the province’s “Skills for Jobs Blueprint” cries out for some critical treatment, because frankly it’s not all that smart.
Turn back the clock a bit: in April 2014, the BC government rolled-out a series of policies that were collectively branded as the “Skills for Jobs Blueprint”. Much of it consisted of relatively sensible changes to trades training in view of the upcoming Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) mega-project. However, included in this package was some other stuff that sounded like it had been dreamt up on the back of a cocktail napkin. These included: more generous student aid to students enrolled in disciplines related to “high-demand” occupations, and requiring institutions to spend at least 25% of their budgets on disciplines related to “high-demand” occupations (to be phased in by 2017-18).
The student aid pledge was just silly: if these are truly high-demand occupations, they’ll pay more, and students will have less problem re-paying loans. Why would you give more money to these people? The requirement for institutional spending had the potential to be ridiculous, but wasn’t necessarily so. Whatever purists might think, public authorities spend money on higher education mainly to improve the local economy; and besides, depending on how broadly “high-demand” occupations were described, they might already be spending 25%. There was the possibility, in other words, that it would require no change at all on institutions’ part. But that would depend crucially on how BC defined “high-demand”.
This is where it gets maddening. When the government finally released its definition of high-demand, it had nothing to do with a skills gap, and was not in any way based on analyses of supply and demand. Instead, it was simply the 60 occupations with the most job openings. Or, put differently: according to the government of BC, the highest-demand occupations are simply the 60 largest occupations. Oy.
Now, it’s hard to tell whether institutions actually line up 25% of their spending on priority disciplines related to the “big 60”, since BC doesn’t work on any kind of funding formula. However, it is possible to reverse engineer this kind of thing by looking at enrolment patterns, and assuming that spending weights are similar to what one would see in other provinces (read: Ontario and Quebec), as we demonstrated back here.
The results were instructive. Quite clearly, all colleges meet the test. Among universities, it’s slightly more complicated. If you simply take all enrolments in the academic programs most directly related to 59 of the 60 “most desired” occupations, and weight them in the ON/QC style, you find that province-wide, these programs already make up 32% of expenditures, and all universities except Emily Carr would meet the 25% cut. However, the 60th occupation with the most “demand” is university professors (yes, really), which technically can be filled by doctoral students from any program. Throw those in and you end up with almost 47% of all dollars being spent on “priority” areas.
Ideally, this result would mean the province could just declare victory (“Look! 25%! We showed them!”) and go home. But these days, government can’t just be seen to be ordering institutions about; they have to actually be ordering them about. So my guess is BC will avoid declaring victory, and instead use the ambiguity created by the lack of a funding formula to jerk institutions around a bit “(Spend here! Don’t spend there!”), just to show everyone who’s boss.
Plus ça change…