Advanced Education Minister Melanie Mark talks business

In her first address to the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, Advanced Education Minister Melanie Mark called for more apprentices on job sites and decried "racism" against international students

Credit: Jeff Chan

Melanie Mark at the B.C. Chamber of Commerce’s recent Cabinet Minister Breakfast

In her first address to the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, Mark called for more apprentices on job sites and decried “racism” against international students

Melanie Mark billed her recent Vancouver appearance as “a glimpse of my brain,” and she didn’t disappoint.

Mark, provincial minister of advanced education, skills and training, spoke at Chambar restaurant on January 30 in the latest instalment of the Cabinet Minister Breakfast series, hosted by BCBusiness partner the BC Chamber of Commerce. After opening remarks from Val Litwin, president and CEO of the BC Chamber, Mark was introduced by Tony Gugliotta, a director of the South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority (TransLink), which sponsored the event along with the Port of Vancouver and First West Credit Union. Her speech followed a similar appearance by Premier John Horgan last December.

The rookie cabinet minister primed the crowd by noting that Vancouver–Mount Pleasant, the riding she has represented since first being elected a New Democratic Party MLA in 2016, is home to thousands of small businesses. “We know it’s small businesses that shape the fabric of British Columbia,” she said. “It’s important for me to be an advocate for those small businesses. We know that they are essential for our economy.”

The first Indigenous woman elected to the B.C. legislature and the province’s first Indigenous female cabinet minister, Mark also talked about her humble background. Raised by a single mother in East Vancouver, she was the first in her family to attend and graduate from university, earning a BA in political science at SFU.

“So I know a thing or two about adversity,” Mark said. “But I also know a thing or two about how impactful my education has been on my life, and how transformative it has been on my life, and the difference between growing up in poverty and having the opportunity to live in prosperity.”

Everyone wants to give their children the best chance of success, Mark added. “Our government ran on three pillars: make life affordable, improve the services that you count on, and ensure that we have a strong, sustainable and innovative economy,” she said. “I feel like I’m achieving those objectives every single day that I go to work.”

Mark argued that training opportunities are the key to ensuring that people have jobs and can earn promotions in the workplace. The NDP government has invested in 500 new trades seats at post-secondary institutions throughout the province, and it’s talking to experts about developing a robust co-op system for B.C., she explained. “It’s imperative that we’re working together, but what I’m trying to do as minister is make sure that that ecosystem across all of our 25 post-secondary institutions can complement the demands of the workforce.”

Less than a year into her role as cabinet minister, Mark said she’s learning about apprenticeship programs. With the province investing $14.6 billion in infrastructure over the next three years, the ratio of apprentices working on public infrastructure projects must improve, she asserted. “We want to lean in and work with our Industry Training Authority and people in the sector to understand what is it going to take to have those apprenticeship ratios.”

Mark touted her government’s reduction of interest on student loans to the prime lending rate from prime plus 2.5 percent, a move she said has benefited 200,000 students. The NDP has also made tuition free for youth in care, she pointed out. “I want to see the glass half-full and the potential of young people pursuing their education and moving on advance their careers.”

B.C. can do more to boost the proportion of women and Indigenous people in the trades, Mark said. “That is a goal of mine,” she maintained. “I’m going to see those numbers go from 3 or 10 percent, and let’s make it 20, and let’s not stop there—let’s move those numbers up the next year. I’m a very ambitious person.”

Mark, whose family is from northern B.C., where her grandfather was a logger in Haida Gwaii, addressed what she called “this mythology about the trades.” When she attended Vancouver Technical Secondary School, she recalls, the “bad kids” were sent to do woodworking or to fix cars. Today, being a mechanic is a highly technical job, and tradespeople such as electricians are in high demand, she observed. “I think there’s an opportunity here to break down those myths. But there’s no way for me to understand it unless I get out to the community.”

Over the past six months, Mark has focused her attention on the province’s 25 publicly funded post-secondary institutions. In response to a question from the audience, she said she is talking to members of her roughly 400 staff about strengthening partnerships with private institutions, which are part of her purview.

Asked about her government’s position on international students, Mark said that during a recent tour of B.C.’s post-secondary schools, she repeatedly heard that students from other countries “feel like a cash cow.” It’s time to break down the stigma, she warned: “There is racism in our community, and it’s really driven by ‘Those international students are taking my seats away,’ without acknowledging that we send students abroad.”

International students will help fill the many jobs expected to open up in B.C. over the next decade, Mark contended. (From 2016 through 2025, thanks to replacement demand and economic expansion, the total will reach more than 934,000, according to an estimate by the previous Liberal government.) To that end, she’s exploring trade missions to several Asian nations. “I’m not a minister who’s interested in a whole bunch of paperwork and photo ops,” Mark said. “I want to get things done.”