Our province will never be the same after the pandemic. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing
Months later, it’s still an eye-popping number. After B.C. went into lockdown to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, the province lost 400,000 jobs in March and April. Anyone else miss the good old days of the global financial crisis? Our job losses in the ensuing Great Recession totalled just 70,000 over a nine-month stretch, notes Ken Peacock, chief economist at the Business Council of British Columbia.
In June, the BCBC forecasted that the provincial gross domestic product will shrivel by 7.8 percent this year, versus 2.6 percent during the 2008-09 downturn. As B.C. keeps reopening everything from hair salons to movie sets, Peacock expects a surge in job gains this summer. “We’re not going to get all of those 400,000 back, though, or anything close,” he warns.
Even if consumer services return, B.C. is still mired in a deep global recession, with international travel and tourism to the province largely halted. Peacock, who points out that it took three or four years to regain all the jobs lost in 2008-09, thinks we face a slow, uneven recovery. (Provincial GDP will expand by 4.8 percent in 2021, the BCBC projected in June.) “The structure of the economy is going to look quite different coming out of this crisis than it did going in.”
Over the coming pages, you’ll hear from local businesses in a wide variety of industries that are helping shape this new economy. Although COVID has caused enormous destruction and hardship for some companies and entrepreneurs, it’s created opportunities for others. Does the pandemic also offer us a chance to build a more economically resilient B.C.?
COVID has shown how swiftly businesses can adapt by reimagining what they do, says Robin Cox, a professor in the disaster and emergency management programs at Royal Roads University. “That’s the kind of mindset we need to encourage,” argues Cox, who also directs the university’s Resilience by Design research innovation lab, which focuses on building leadership capacity among young people and professionals in the context of disaster risk reduction and climate change. “How do you set yourself up so that you can pivot relatively quickly?”
Globally, the pandemic shows the loss of life and economic chaos caused by lack of preparation for a disaster, Cox says. In her view, COVID is a crisis within a crisis—climate change, which poses big risks to B.C. As governments keep injecting vast amounts of capital into the economy, she wants to see them support clean energy and other efforts that promote a low-carbon tomorrow, as well as one-stop business recovery centres and programs that help industries like tourism adapt to coming disruptions. “Yes, we do need people getting back to work,” Cox says. “But we need to be very smart about those investments, using those stimulus dollars in ways that focus on that resilient future.”
Michelle Mungall, provincial minister of jobs, economic development and competitiveness, shares that long-term outlook. As British Columbians grappled with COVID in May, her ministry released two reports, from the Emerging Economy Task Force (EETF) and former innovation commissioner Alan Winter. In the works long before the outbreak, both try to peer ahead decades, making the case that B.C. can prosper by learning to harness the constant disruption and uncertainty we must learn to expect.
“What we’re learning from the pandemic, and the work that these amazing people did, is all about building resiliency for our economy and looking into the future and seeing where our opportunities are, regardless of the crises that may come our way,” Mungall says.
With her government forecasting a $12.5-billion deficit for the 2020-21 fiscal year, she believes public investment should continue as the pandemic recedes. “What we have learned time and time again is that when our societies go into crisis, that’s the last point in time when governments should be practising financial austerity.”
Acknowledging the importance of wage subsidies and other government aid, economist Peacock wants to avoid making life more expensive or difficult for businesses. “Why on earth would we increase taxes and add regulatory burdens or costs to businesses while at the same time, governments are propping them up?” he asks. “Don’t add any additional costs for a couple of years, maybe three.”
BCBC executive vice-president and chief policy officer Jock Finlayson, who sits on the EETF, doesn’t think Canada will have the cash to launch its own Green New Deal. But he sees an opening for B.C. as Western multinationals weigh repatriating their global supply chains in the wake of the pandemic. If U.S. manufacturing and technology companies start making things in North America, the province could pitch itself as a production hub, mostly by dangling the low Canadian dollar. “It’s going to take a complete rethinking of tax policy and other things,” Finlayson says. “And we’re never going to be the low-wage, super-low-cost jurisdiction, but we do have some strengths, especially in some of the technology-related industries.”
Technology is the way forward for Raghwa Gopal, president and CEO of Crown agency Innovate BC. Gopal points to a World Economic Forum forecast that by 2022, 60 percent of global GDP will be digitized, and that over the next decade, digitally enabled platforms will account for 70 percent of new economic value. “Tech companies today in British Columbia are creating technology that will enable the other sectors to become resilient and get into the digital age.”
Bucking the trend, B.C. tech businesses keep hiring. Gopal thinks the shift to working from home has broadened the provincial job market. But when it comes to talent, the bigger opportunity is international, says the EETF member. “Because of the political stability and how we’ve been able to handle the COVID crisis, I think a lot of people will look at British Columbia as a very good place to come to.”
Our 10-part feature looks at how people from a variety of industries see a way forward. See below for the complete list and links.