Economy | BCBusiness

Economy | BCBusiness
Vancity CEO Tamara Vrooman

CEOs deliver the wakeup call: warm beaches and ski resorts are no longer enough to attract the talent the province needs to build a strong economy

After a tepid 2013, B.C.’s economic outlook calls for cautious optimism. That’s the forecast shared Thursday by a panel of CEOs speaking at a Vancouver Board of Trade forum at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
 
Near-term sunshine comes in the form of continued reawakening for the U.S. economy—the province’s biggest trading partner—in the aftermath of the 2008-’09 recession. Vast, long-term promise comes from the prospect of a giant new industry exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) to lucrative Asian markets, although the first tankers won’t leave port until the end of the decade.
 
Clouding these opportunities, however, are a wide array of challenges. A high cost of living, skills shortages, an education gap, and income inequality are high among the forum speakers’ lists of worries.
 
Tamara Vrooman, president and CEO of Vancouver City Savings Credit Union, said complacency about the allure of B.C.’s climate, geography, and lifestyle may be one of the greatest risks. “Snow and mountains do not a business strategy make,” she warned. “I see for the first time in a decade, young people between 25 and 34 moving en masse to Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, because that’s where the jobs are,”  Vrooman said. “I’m quite concerned about our ability to grow our economy for the next generation if they can’t find gainful employment here.”
 
The numbers back her up. Statistics Canada figures show B.C. lost 18,900 full-time jobs in 2013. Yet even with fewer spots to fill, companies are finding themselves unable to find workers with the skills needed to grow their businesses. There aren’t enough graduates in high-demand fields, and B.C. wages for even those workers are often insufficient to offset the high cost of living.
 
Seapsan ULC CEO Jonathan Whitworth said his company began recruiting engineers, designers, and other skilled professionals two years ago, after the shipbuilding firm was awarded an $8-billion federal contract to build naval vessels. The company was awarded another $3.3 billion contract last October.
 
“We couldn’t train people fast enough,” he said. “We went outside of Canada, not because we wanted to but because we had to.” And even this search ran aground because recruitment prospects said the promise of a rewarding career was not enough to offset Vancouver’s high cost of living. “We identified the absolute perfect person that we needed to come and help us and be a success, and they said the wage, and the salary, and the cost of living is now punitive for me to actually move to Vancouver,” Whitworth said. “The mountains are beautiful,” he said. “But if you can’t afford to actually ski, they are just an annoyance.”
 
“We really do have a fundamental problem of a mismatch,” said Vrooman. She sees small technology firms unable to find two or three key individuals with the requisite technical skills and creativity. On the other hand she also sees hundreds of graduates taking part-time jobs, and unable to move out of their parents’ homes.
 
Whitworth said those issues need to be addressed or the massive projects planned for B.C.’s LNG, mining, and other sectors could be imperiled. “How come Jimmy is still living in the basement without a job and apparently we need folks up north?” he asked. “We’ve got to solve that problem now.”