Last week’s LNG in BC conference drew hundreds of local and international delegates from around the world for the latest update on the B.C. LNG opportunity.
The far-fetched speculation of LNG development of two years ago has been tempered, largely by global energy market conditions, to something much more realistic. Some of the proponents have steadily moved their projects closer to final investment decision (FID), taking into account the multitude of variables necessary to get board approval to invest billions of dollars in B.C.
A key variable to a positive FID is the supply of skilled labour required to build the LNG plants and the natural gas pipelines which would feed them.
As the executive director of the BC Building Trades, representing 13 international unions who have 35,000 highly skilled tradespeople in their memberships, make no mistake that we are enthusiastic supporters of B.C.’s LNG projects. But I do have concerns regarding the demand side for British Columbian and Canadian skilled labour.
Apprenticeship training is key to the supply and demand for skilled labour. As most of the LNG activity will happen on First Nations land in northern B.C., we believe it is of paramount importance to provide First Nations communities, as well as others living in the affected areas, with access to apprenticeship training and employment opportunities. As one First Nations speaker at the conference said, “The best way to keep the door open is to provide the skills training, locally if that makes sense, that Aboriginal people need to be full and equal participants in the LNG opportunity”.
For we believe that northern British Columbians with Red Seal or journey-level status in the skilled trades should have the first opportunity for employment when construction starts. This belief is consistent with the third Term of Reference (TOR) Premier Christy Clark assigned to the LNG Working Group she appointed in 2013.
The TOR directed the working group to develop a propocol which would give employment priority to local workers, including those from First Nations communities, followed by provincial and national workers before the use of temporary foreign workers.
I appreciate the very real concern proponents have for an assured supply of skilled labour at the right time in the construction of their project, however I am somewhat confounded by what I thought to be an underlying message from some of the proponents to delegates at the conference: They seem to want ready and available access to temporary foreign workers irrespective of the availability of skilled British Columbians and Canadians.
Perhaps, as a labour leader, I am overly sensitive to some of the messages, but leaving the conference I wondered whether the LNG opportunity had subtly changed for First Nations and British Columbia trades workers.
The Premier’s LNG Working Group continues to grapple with what a temporary foreign worker protocol would ultimately look like. From my perspective, we in that working group must leave no doubt in the minds of the proponents and the people of B.C., including First Nations followed by British Columbians, and then workers from other provinces, to have priority access to employment opportunities on LNG projects.
If we cannot establish that as the employment protocol, the LNG opportunity for First Nations members and British Columbia workers will wane.
British Columbians and First Nations have embraced the LNG opportunity, which offers a transformational opportunity for our province. But that opportunity will only be present when we know local workers and British Columbians have first access to the employment that will come from the investments. As the proponents and government negotiate project development agreements, we need to see language in those documents that will deliver jobs to British Columbians and Canadians before granting access to temporary foreign workers.
Labour, industry and government need to continue working together to ensure that we “get it right” and make sure that British Columbians are first in line. Anything short of that will only result in disappointment.
Executive director, BC Building Trades