Brian Yu, Central 1 Credit Union | BCBusiness

Brian Yu, Central 1 Credit Union | BCBusiness
Brian Yu says the statistics don't tell the real story of who's hiring in B.C.

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.

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Map
Image: Gayleen Whiting
Interior regions of the province haven't seen the
same recovery in employment compared to the
Lower Mainland.

That might be easy to say in the province’s northeast, where unemployment is averaging 3.6 per cent region-wide, but in the Cariboo region, where the unemployment rate is double that in the northeast, workers are also in short supply. Taseko Mines Ltd. plans to reopen the Gibraltar mine just north of Williams Lake, a project that will add 140 full-time positions to the local economy, while plans for the nearby Mount Polly and Spanish Mountain mines, among other properties, are creating opportunities for an additional 500 workers. Oil and gas exploration is also requiring upwards of 200 people by 2015, as well as occupations supporting those activities. “Our biggest challenge is the competition for skilled labour in any of those sectors,” says Alan Madrigga, economic development manager for Williams Lake.

Madrigga says that one of the challenges many remote communities face is image. Many people still think of northern and interior B.C. in the same terms as 20 years ago, before advances in communications infrastructure made them as nationally and globally connected as the province’s major centres, and brand-name retailers began to deem smaller centres worth their attention. The misconceptions make attracting professionals a particular challenge. Williams Lake recently secured its first resident pediatrician in more than a dozen years, but many professionals would rather be in a big city. Madrigga explains that he takes pains to tell job seekers, and especially skilled professionals, exactly what they can expect if they accept a job in the region. “You’re not coming to the world’s vision of British Columbia, which might just be Vancouver,” he says. “We have seasons here.”

Williams Lake and other interior communities might, some day, benefit from a bold experiment currently underway in Kamloops, where rather than try to attract professionals from afar, it is developing its own by launching Canada’s first new law school in 35 years. As Chris Axworthy, dean of the new Thompson Rivers University law school told BCBusiness last fall, to secure lawyers for smaller centres often requires training people already living in smaller centres: “It says something about taking legal education out to where other people are, other than in the metropolitan centres.”

Regions outside the metropolitan south might also develop alternatives to traditional resource jobs, but it’s a long, slow process. For example, there is a budding arts scene in the Cariboo, driven in part by retirees who have come to the region seeking a slower pace of life. It’s an ethos at odds with the frontier heritage, plainly visible in the local stampede grounds, one of the first things a visitor sees upon entering Williams Lake from Highway 97. “That part of our community is expanding,” Madrigga says. “We’ve got a heck of a lot more local artists that are commercially selling and displaying their work. There’s been a few galleries that have popped up to try and get into that business.”

It’s a trend that’s apparent throughout the province, but it will take some promoting to attract workers, according to Andrew Ramlo of the Urban Futures Institute in Vancouver. “Many regions will have to find their own niches and promote what kind of ‘golden handcuffs’ they can offer to people,” he says. “It represents a new arena for economic development as they have often focused on ‘getting the jobs here;’ for many this will grow into ‘get the workers here.’”

The province lists arts and culture occupations among those showing the most promise in the Cariboo, with 320 positions expected to open up through 2015. Growth in the sector is projected at 3.6 per cent a year, more than in any other segment of the workforce. But there’s so much more happening than what the statistics show, Madrigga says. Ranching continues to be important, and mobile abattoirs have helped support livestock operations in the region. Agroforestry and other businesses are also flourishing.

While the northeast has been able to rely on workers able to move between jobs, and the interior regions struggle to develop alternatives to traditional resource jobs, the Lower Mainland has benefited from diversity. Sure, there are clusters of tech firms, and the many professional firms create a variety of office jobs for versatile white-collar workers, but Lee Malleau, CEO of the Vancouver Economic Commission, points to the region’s appeal to a diverse range of companies as its greatest asset.

“We continue to have reasonably good growth in the context of the global economy,” she says, pointing to the province’s primary industries as a source of employment in the downtown core, while the warehousing and logistics firms that handle goods coming through the port generate well-paying industrial jobs. “So long as there’s global trade, we’ll continue to have a fairly strong sector,” she says. “I see that as a key strength and a core strength for Vancouver. We talk about the importance of global head offices, global trade, global activity – well, Vancouver has a very strong cluster across a variety of sectors of global trade companies.”

The challenge for the rest of the province may well lie in grabbing a share of that activity so that local economies are no longer one-job towns, but support a more diverse workforce that can sustain communities through the ups and downs of the economic cycle.

While the employment forecasts coming out of Victoria point to a rosy future for the province, the statistics don’t always reflect on-the-ground reality. Madrigga says a lot of the business opportunities in the Cariboo region fly under the radar of forecasters in Victoria. “They don’t really know some of the significant projects that are going on because they’re really grassroots,” he says, adding that these businesses “haven’t dealt with Victoria because they don’t need to, so there’s a lot of things that get missed on those provincial outlooks, especially if it’s based out of Vancouver or Victoria.”

It’s an objection also raised by Larry Sparks in the Kootenay region, who disputes the province’s forecast of 7.8 per cent growth in the forest sector between 2010 and 2015 – or about 600 jobs. “I’d love to get into the think tank that makes up these statistics,” Sparks says. “I look through my region here in the Kootenays and I could run down a list of mills that have closed, forestry contractors that have gone under, shifts that have been laid off. I don’t really see it happening in forestry right now.”

While he acknowledges that the closures happened post-2010, when the most recent forecasts were drafted, it underscores the need for more accurate forecasting, and indeed, a revision of the existing labour market outlook statistics is planned for this summer. There’s also talk of the province working with local economic development officers to develop better employment projections, but so far there have been no substantive discussions.

However, the province has launched a promising series of “Regional Workforce Tables” as part of its B.C. Jobs Plan. These tables aim “to bring people together to discuss how to best align training programs to meet regional needs,” according to the B.C. Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation. Participants will include “key leaders from industry, labour, employers, First Nations, educators, training service providers, economic development organizations and others” in order to “apply local knowledge and expertise to identify economic development opportunities and inform alignment of training programs with demand for jobs.” These workforce tables have been initiated in the North Coast, Nechako and Northeast development regions, with similar tables to follow in the southern half of the province at some point in the future.

Similarly, the Jobs Match project, an initiative designed to meet employment demands across the province, remains under development. Its goal is to match the province’s unemployed residents with job opportunities where there’s a shortage of workers. Key areas where the province sees it being of use are the northeast sector, Fraser-Fort George and Thompson-Nicola areas.

“While still in development, the goal of the project is to find ways to identify eligible individuals on income assistance and employment insurance who are interested in taking advantage of job opportunities in the north,” according to information provided by the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation. “In some cases, this may mean providing supports such as transportation, accommodation and training for unemployed individuals to take full advantage of employment opportunities in those areas.”

Details of progress on the Jobs Match project were not available at print time, but the province has announced millions of dollars in funding to train workers – primarily in trades and occupations associated with primary industries. The province has pledged $10 million for skills training across the north as part of its Labour Market Solutions initiative, part of a six-year funding initiative in partnership with the federal government that ends in 2014. Projects include a human resources strategy for the mining sector, and training of steelworkers, technology-sector workers, health-care and social-science professionals, as well as workers for the transportation, manufacturing and natural-gas sectors. In addition, more than $8 million has been allocated to fund 2,660 trades- training seats in the Cariboo, Northeast and North Coast/Nechako regions.

While the funding emphasizes B.C.’s traditional strengths in primary industries, development officers grapple with the economic and demographic pressures that show no signs of halting. Populations will continue to age, and competition for workers – as even the province’s statistics show – will remain intense, and get worse as the pace of retirements picks up. The federal government’s recent move to postpone retirement benefits to age 67 will only defer the inevitable.

At the end of the day, the key to maintaining a competitive workforce may lie in what’s kept the northeast and the southwest going strong over the years: a diversity of jobs, and an abundant pool of workers. 

 

Predicted Growth Sectors, 2010-2020, by region

 

Region

 

 

 

IndustrieS

 

Mainland/Southwest

Information technology, manufacturing, forestry

Vancouver Island/Coast

Services to mining, utilities, construction

Thompson/Okanagan

Management/administration, mining, transportation

Kootenay

Business services, forestry, professional services

Cariboo

Oil and gas, mining, metal working/machinery

North Coast/Nechako

Construction, mining, oil and gas

Northeast

Management/admin, culture/recreation, agriculture

 

Source: B.C. Stats/B.C. Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation