More skilled labour needed as liquefied-natural-gas industry grows
The dean of BCIT’s School of Energy expects the development of a liquefied-natural-gas industry to cause a spike in the demand for skilled labour.
Competition will be so intense that Trevor Williams can imagine recruiters knocking on doors and offering to fly workers on chartered planes to northern B.C.
“It’s going to have a huge impact on the labour force,” Williams told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
A number of traditional employers in such areas as mining and processing are going to lose tradespeople, from electricians to welders to pipe fitters, he said.
“The biggest challenge is to get the number of people necessary to do it, and they’re never going to get those people in the North,” Williams added.
The provincial government has identified liquefied natural gas (LNG) as B.C.’s ticket to long-term prosperity. It estimates $1 trillion flowing into the economy over 30 years.
Five plants are planned for the northwest coast to liquefy gas drilled from wells in northeastern B.C. None of the energy companies proposing to export LNG to Asia has made final investment decisions so far. And the only Green MLA in the B.C. legislature, Andrew Weaver, dismissed the plan to create a B.C. LNG–export industry as a bill of goods in an interview earlier this year with the Straight.
While investment is necessary to the realization of B.C.’s LNG aspirations, Williams says that a strategy to train the required workforce is vital. The engineer indicated that he’s working with the deans of BCIT’s schools of construction and transportation to come up with one.
“We believe that we have to take a leadership role in this,” Williams said, noting that BCIT is the biggest trades-training institution in the province.
The construction of LNG plants and associated pipelines will generate at least 63,000 jobs, according to a recent report by a committee of representatives from the provincial government and industry.
The B.C. Natural Gas Workforce Strategy Committee forecasts 2,400 new jobs once construction is complete, to operate and maintain plants and pipelines. In addition, at least 61,000 positions will be needed to support LNG operations.
The report talks about the creation of an entry-level program to increase the number of aboriginal people, women, and immigrants in the gas sector. Committee chair Geoff Stevens says Northern Lights College will play a lead role in developing the program.
“They would obviously work closely with the industry,” Stevens told the Straight by phone, referring to the northern B.C. school. “But it would be the kind of program that could be delivered by multiple institutions in the province.”
The natural-gas industry currently employs more than 13,000 people in northeastern B.C.
The province estimates B.C.’s gas reserves at 1,200 trillion cubic feet. The five proposed LNG plants will require a combined production of only four trillion cubic feet per year.
The B.C. Natural Gas Workforce Strategy Committee report also mentions the implementation of a postsecondary LNG operator program.
“It would be a certification program that could be delivered in multiple places,” Stevens explained. “Again, it would be industry that would basically define the required competencies.”
As the provincial agency responsible for trades certification, the Industry Training Authority will also play a role in making the government’s LNG dream a reality.
“We’re engaged in all of the sectors, including LNG and shipbuilding and mining and all of the large construction and manufacturing operations,” ITA chief operating officer Gary Herman told the Straight by phone.
With demand for skilled labour possibly about to rise, encouraging young people to enter the trades is essential, according to Herman. He added that the ITA has programs that support youth in exploring careers in these fields. “The goal is to employ as many British Columbians as we can first,” he said.
Over at BCIT, there’s growing interest in at least two LNG–related courses. According to information provided by the institute’s media staff, applications for the heavy-duty-mechanic program have increased 55 percent since July 2012. Applications for power engineering have risen three-fold over last year.
While Williams and his fellow deans prepare BCIT to meet the training requirements of a nascent LNG industry, he also recognizes that it will take more than investment and the right labour force to get one off the ground.
A huge energy infrastructure is also needed to power up the plants that will cool gas into a stable, liquid form for shipment to overseas buyers. Then there’s the competition from many other gas producers, like Australia.
“One of the things that is absolutely critical is the time to market,” Williams said. “We are not the only country that has abundance of natural gas.”