B.C. boasts a relatively low unemployment rate, yet communities across the province’s interior are still asking if steady work will ever return.
By most accounts, B.C has a right to feel smug. The province is sitting pretty in the middle of what former premier Gordon Campbell, basking in the glow of his party’s victory in the 2009 provincial election, heralded as a “golden decade” of “great goals.” Between 2010 and 2020, Campbell audaciously predicted, B.C. would “create more jobs per capita than anywhere else in Canada.” While most of the world was still struggling to emerge from the recession, B.C. was boldly going where few jurisdictions could hope to go.
Three years on, the claims appear to be backed up by statistics: unemployment rates in the province have dropped steadily from the peaks hit during the recession, and job openings are climbing. But a closer look at the numbers shows that the growth hasn’t been uniform across the province. Rather, it’s very much a tale of three key regions: while the metropolitan centres of the southwest scramble to attract professionals and the northeast attracts an itinerant army of trades workers, through the vast swath of the province’s heartland people are wondering whether the jobs will ever come back.
Up close, job prospects across the province reveal an economy in transition, with seven sub-regions scrambling to redefine long-held notions of where the jobs are and how to attract people to fill them.
Speaking from his office overlooking False Creek and the towers of downtown Vancouver, Central 1 Credit Union economist Bryan Yu says a twin dynamic faces regions in the province. Major centres like Vancouver attract employers and a mobile workforce, while the middle of the province relies on a local population that may or may not have the skills that emerging job opportunities require. Meanwhile, oil and gas exploration in the northeast attracts both local workers able to move between jobs during slack times and Alberta residents who come across the border to meet demand for workers when times are good.
The result is dynamic job markets where statistics reflect neither the actual demand for workers nor the origin of those filling the positions available. “Some of these major projects, things like utilities and mining, they need a skill set,” Yu says. These jobs “attract a lot of individuals from other provinces – from Alberta, for example. But they won’t be calculated within their employment figures because they’re not residents in the area.”
The proximity to Alberta cuts both ways. A weak economy in B.C. – or at least, a stronger one in Alberta – will draw workers away from B.C. and make it harder for regions without steady employment opportunities to retain workers. And the steadiness of those opportunities is weakened in B.C. by geography, Yu says.
The challenge is particularly acute in northern B.C., where both distance and a mountainous landscape separate the boom towns. Unlike in the southwest or the Peace Region, there are no clusters of communities allowing workers to shift easily between jobs as economic circumstances change.
“We will see some movement in labour over time, if jobs are in the northern regions,” Yu says. “We saw that in other areas of Canada. One that comes to mind is Fort McMurray. But Fort McMurray is a much more concentrated area with a lot more companies in one single area. In northern B.C., where you’ve got a lot of projects spread out, it’s a little more difficult to attract workers.”
The challenge is evident in the Kootenays, where unemployment was running 6.5 per cent this spring. While the rate was well below the provincial rate of 7.3 per cent, the number is little comfort to local residents in a region still waiting for signs of recovery. Larry Sparks, executive director of the Kootenay Rockies Innovation Council, explains that coal mining and the industries that support it have been booming, but forestry is in the tank. Green energy has been an attractive prospect for the region, he says, but when he looks around he sees working-age people leaving the area. While population stats for the past five years show strong growth in the 20 to 34 age range, the region has seen even more people 50 and older moving in. Meanwhile, young families – parents between 35 and 49 years old, with children 19 and younger – are leaving the region.
Sparks lives in Golden, 245 kilometres north of his Cranbrook office, and he sees evidence of the population exodus all around him. “I want to stop short of being Gloomy Gus or anything, but certainly in Golden – which is where I live and where I’m most familiar – what we’re seeing more than people landing new jobs and starting new businesses is the out-migration of young families and people working remotely,” Sparks says. “The jobs are missing.”
About 1,000 kilometres north of Golden, Tumbler Ridge has, for decades, been a stable community with good jobs and a solid population base. But when the Quintette and Bullmoose coal mines shut down in 2000 and 2003, approximately 800 workers lost their jobs. “Those people moved away, looking for other work,” says Sue Kenny, who moved to Tumbler Ridge with her husband in 1988, after he landed a job there. (Today, she’s general manager of Community Futures of Peace Liard.)
Things are looking up, with five mines opening or planned near Tumbler Ridge and Chetwynd, but the projects face stiff competition for workers from attractive jobs in the oil and gas fields east of the Rockies, which also need skilled workers. There simply aren’t enough workers to go around. “There’s such a skilled-labour shortage across the province,” Kenny says. “If you have any kind of increase in your economy, then you’re caught.”
Still, a job’s a job, and Kenny doesn’t think attracting workers to the region should be as hard as it was when most of the job opportunities were for men only, and wives struggled with isolation, depression and associated challenges. “If you’re not working right now it’s because you don’t want to work,” she says.