Why two twenty-somethings left the Lower Mainland for the North

SMART MOVE | Joe Moser, 27, went from being a general worker to a branch manager when he moved to Fort St. John

An engineer and his journalist partner give up the suburban life for a whole new way of living in Fort St. John—number one again on our list of B.C.’s Best Cities for Work

On an early morning this past fall, Joe Moser was getting ready to leave home and go to work when he was stopped suddenly in his tracks: there, standing beside his truck in the driveway, was what he describes as a “monster of a thing”: a huge mother moose. With her calf grazing in his garden, mother moose wasn’t going anywhere—and neither, it turns out, was Moser.

Life is a little different in Fort St. John, human population 22,000 (moose population: unknown). Moser, a Surrey native, moved to the city 18 months ago. He had been working for Nu-Westech in Richmond as a junior structural engineer-in-training when his girlfriend, Bronwyn Scott, was offered a job as a reporter at the Alaska Highway News. Moser started calling companies in Fort St. John for project management positions. He found the only structural engineer in town, retiree Jim Jarvis, who passed his phone number on to Grande Prairie-based engineering firm Beairsto & Associates—who, within the day, called Moser and asked him to open a branch for the firm in Fort St. John.

“With no resumé—no nothing—I was given the opportunity here that I would not have been given anywhere else in B.C.,” says Moser, 27. “I’ve gone from just your general worker to a manager, and it opens up a whole series of possibilities.”

Moser and Scott are among the many couples moving to B.C.’s northeast—taking advantage of what our Best Cities for Work list shows is, for the second year running, the hottest job market in the province. Lori Ackerman, mayor of Fort St. John, says she began to see the shift from the boom-bust cycle around 2003, when the year-round summer drilling credit program was approved. The population has grown 7.4 per cent in Fort St. John since 2010 and by 9.9 per cent in nearby Dawson Creek (number two on our list). Many of these newcomers are also young: the median age is 31 in Fort St. John and 36 in Dawson Creek, compared to a B.C. median of 42. “Fort St. John is a place where both partners in a relationship can have good paying jobs—and that doesn’t happen everywhere,” says Ackerman.

Indeed, within a year of moving to Fort St. John, Moser and Scott were able to buy a house on 160 acres of land just outside the city—a vast improvement from their accommodations in the Lower Mainland (Moser lived with family in North Surrey while Scott rented a basement suite in Newton). “We can afford a house and a decent lifestyle here, and I don’t have to commute,” says Moser. That said, he sees the limitations for many of the young workers flooding into town. “I find that people who come here either love it or they hate it. They’re looking for more pubs, clubs, movie theatres and malls.”

For Moser, the biggest shortcoming has been a lack of dining options. “There’s lots of restaurants, but there isn’t any ethnic food. If you’re a creative enough cook you can go to Save-On and make it yourself,” he says. As for Mayor Ackerman, she sees this weakness as an opportunity: “If people are interested in being an entrepreneur and they have some kind of niche service and it’s not available up here, they would find people glad to see it.”