Real solutions, stronger foundations needed now for the future

By Alan Thomarat, The StarPhoenix August 31, 2013 - There has been much reported lately on the issue of housing affordability and there are concurrent reports showing this province outpacing all others in average income growth. The two are not unrelated matters. Earlier this month, I highlighted the high level of job vacancies in the province against the backdrop of the lowest unemployment rate in the country. All of this unveils a complicated issue at the core of sustainability and economic growth. Clearly we are blessed with potential and opportunity few others have, but our challenge is whether we will seize on the opportunities, make critical investments and reach our full potential.

We indeed are doing well, but many years of neglect, and a lack of investment in training of skilled trades and our post-secondary technical training centres, adds to our inability to meet market demand for skilled workers and dampens our ability to grow the economy and remain competitive on the world stage.

We need to recognize that a backlog of unfilled jobs in excess of 15,000 may, on the one hand, be something to boast about, but in reality this backlog is a threat to our ability to maintain economic momentum.

Diminishing labour supply places pressure on projects and construction costs, delaying completion of major industrial and commercial ventures and in many cases threatening the viability of the projects themselves. The residential construction sector is not immune to the impacts of delays and higher costs, and these affect the cost of housing and housing affordability itself.

Economic development has many moving parts and while in the global context there is little we can do to affect world markets, there is much we can do to secure our position and enhance our potential as a dominant trader in the international commodity markets.

Affordability and income are related factors in the housing sector, but each is compounded by other factors we do influence. In construction and project management, time is money and the lack of skilled trades does more than add to the cost of labour, as the passing of time adds to financing costs and slows the movement in the housing market itself.

Income earning potential obviously contributes to purchasing power and mitigates to some extent eroding affordability.

Income level is a direct result of higher education and society has a clear role in laying a strong foundation for training and development through critical investments in education. Consider that a decade may pass as we discuss this issue ; in fact a couple already have.

When this happens another generation of students miss the opportunity to connect to our economy and find rewarding employment in the sectors driving our growth.

When this occurs we run the risk of losing this talent pool altogether and in many cases individuals remain here, but are under-employed while quality jobs remain unfilled. This is not good for the individual, family, community or industry and places a damper on economic growth.

Educating the workforce and investing in the technical trades are keys to a comprehensive labour market development strategy, and these investments must do more than keep pace with demand.

The training capacity needs to exceed employer demand in order to move projects forward, retain the workforce and build communities and the province. It's not surprising that after several years of population expansion we would eventually see "No Vacancy" signs on provincial campuses. Unfortunately, as many of the investments we need to make take time to complete, there is a real risk we may have no capacity to satisfy the demand, retain the labour force and secure the investments that have come to the province.

It is time to act in deliberate ways in concert with employers to get ahead of demand and meet the labour market challenges ahead.

We've been hearing of intentions recently to invest more than $225 million in SIAST facilities in Saskatoon. More than a dozen years have passed since this debate began and a generation of students are being told we're putting you on a waiting list. We're telling employers we don't have spaces to train the students you need and we run the risk of chasing investment away. This is compounded by demographic realities and massive retirements between now and 2030.

There isn't the luxury of time anymore, lest we lose another generation of students and billions in lost investment and opportunity. We need real solutions now. Many are here today to seize the opportunities that are building the new Saskatchewan, but I'm convinced we don't even realize all of the potential before us. We can't change the past, but we can lay stronger foundations for the future.

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