Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Grappling with the workforce attraction conundrum in B.C.’s north

Another smoky August made for miserable northerners as many were forced to temporarily move, ditch their summer plans or retreat indoors from the oppressive smog last month.

Another smoky August made for miserable northerners as many were forced to temporarily move, ditch their summer plans or retreat indoors from the oppressive smog last month.

Not the best conditions from which to run a “move north” campaign, doubly so when the words “this is the new normal” start circling around.

Trouble is, we could use a few more good people up here.

Or, really, a lot more.

Many communities across the north this past year have complained about the sheer number of jobs that are going unfilled in our towns, everything from hospitality, retail and service sector jobs to truck drivers, professionals and administrators.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to attract and retain good talent in the north, and every employer from restaurants to local government is feeling it.

I know at least one chief administrative officer in a small town who has given up trying to find a traditionally qualified candidate for a management role and is willing to hire unskilled local help and train that person to fill the role.

Or there’s the other pervasive challenge: a northern employer has landed a rock star employee but is only able to keep him or her for one or two years before said rock star is back on tour, so to speak.

Thing is, it’s not as if we didn’t know this was coming, eventually the boomers would retire, and there’d be more jobs available than people.

But it’s not as simple as that up here. A few more things have happened in recent years that have complicated matters.

One, the workforce of 2018 is highly mobile.

We’re not the only region that’s looking for skilled workers, and those workers, if they’re willing to move, will select positions in communities that offer the best quality of life and provide decent compensation.

Earlier this year, we polled communities across the north on their workforce attraction initiatives and learned the challenge isn’t so much making potential workers aware of our communities, it’s offering them communities they want to live in.

In fact, one of the biggest barriers to workforce attraction efforts in the north now is housing. Our stock is old (typically built before 1980), inadequate (not everyone wants a four-bedroom bungalow with two big yards) and many homes (10% to 15% across the north) need major repairs.

On top of that, in many communities there is limited rental housing available for single professionals or even families.

Hard to get ’em here if they don’t have a place to live.

Community amenities are another challenge.

Workers increasingly want to live in vibrant, diverse communities with things to do, places to enjoy and facilities to use. Small, resource-based communities have been strapped for cash for so long that many of the facilities built during the boom years (once again, pre-1980) need upgrades, and there isn’t a lot of money to go around to do it, not to mention trying to find the dollars to build new facilities.

Organizations such as ours are structured to provide ongoing grant funding to help upgrade and build these amenities – it’s a core part of our business.

But funding to build the amenities is only one part of the equation; the other part is the money needed to run them, which, if they’re publicly owned, comes from local taxpayers, or, if they’re built and run by a non-profit, comes from volunteer hours and fundraising.

Last I checked, not too many people were keen on higher taxes, and most non-profits in the north are running perennially short on volunteers.

OK, so then what?

Well, our traditional industries have in the past generated most of the private income and tax revenue in many of our small communities, so growth of those sectors has the potential to generate enough new income to address our housing and amenity challenges, which would help us build more sustainable and attractive communities to solve our workforce challenges.

But for that to happen we need those industries to grow, and for them to grow we need consistent policy and strong markets to help move major projects forward. At the very least we need those things to help our existing mines, mills, gas plants, farms, ranches, transport companies, construction companies and manufacturers to operate with a healthy bottom line.

Of course, we could look at building other industries – new, diverse, innovative industries.

I’m not sure what those are, but I’m sure they’d help, building them though … well, that takes time, leadership and more than a few savvy entrepreneurs.

The challenge is that entrepreneurs these days like to live in communities where they can find a home and enjoy local amenities.

You see the conundrum we’re in.

Not to worry, this is the north, and we’re used to these types of challenges and we’ll rise to the occasion. I’m sure we’ll think of something as soon as the smoke clears. •

Joel McKay (joel@northern is the chief executive officer of Northern Development Initiative Trust, a non-profit organization that stimulates economic growth throughout northern B.C. He is also a Jack Webster Award-winning journalist and a former Business in Vancouver editor.