British Columbia looking to gain competitive edge

Strategic workforce planning imperative to deal with province’s changing economy: Report

British Columbia is at a turning point when it comes to the labour market, as it shifts from a resource-based economy to a diversified, knowledge-based economy driven largely by small business.

But the condition of the province’s human capital stock is lacking, according to a report published by Canada’s Public Policy Forum (CPPF) in partnership with the Human Resources Management Association (HRMA).

“In light of global trends, strategic workforce planning in British Columbia has become imperative as the province seeks to benefit from increasing economic diversification, emerging development prospects and growing trade with new markets,” said the white paper Ahead of the Talent Curve: Ensuring B.C.’s Competitive Edge, based on roundtable discussions with leaders and HR practitioners.

“While the economic outlook appears promising, the province needs to address labour shortages, skills gaps and the underutilization of talent to fully prepare for and take advantage of new growth opportunities.”

Strong economy
B.C. essentially has eight distinct regions, with some represented as agricultural centres while others are booming as a result of oil and gas exploration, according to Anthony Ariganello, president and CEO of HRMA in Vancouver.

“B.C.’s economy is constantly evolving — the province is developing its liquefied natural gas (LNG) sector and is attracting international investment to several major projects. Strengthening ties with countries in Asia are making B.C. an important North American hub for transportation and trade,” he said, adding other areas of strength include clean technologies, biotechnology, life sciences, aerospace, real estate and commercial developments along with technology and digital media.

Clearly, B.C. is doing relatively well, said Bryan Yu, senior economist at Central 1 Credit Union in Vancouver.

“When we look at all the indicators, everything from the consumer spending is high, retail sales are very strong, leading the country right now. 

“We’ve also seen that uplift in tourism, a little bit more of exports as well, and I think it’s gearing off of that low Canadian dollar that we’re seeing, as well as the U.S. economy picking up.”

B.C. is doing surprisingly well, according to Jock Finlayson, executive vice-president and chief policy officer at the Business Council of British Columbia in Vancouver.

“We’re looking for economic growth of 2.5 per cent this year, which is very strong compared to maybe one per cent for Canada, and the economy has become more diverse, more diversified over time. 

“We’re still quite heavily focused on resources but underneath that, there’s more heterogeneity in the industrial structure than a lot of people realize, even a lot of policymakers, because we’re struggling with low commodity prices as well. But even with that, we’re seeing reasonable growth in the overall economy because we’ve got sectors doing quite well.”

B.C. is also seeing shifts in the labour market, said Finlayson.

“After many years where we were losing people to Alberta, working-age people every year, we’re actually seeing that turn around… and it’s helpful from employers’ point of view because we have really struggled in recent years with the extremely high salaries and wages that the oil industry, gas industry, in Alberta were providing.”

Regional variation brings challenges
The urban divide complicates workforce planning in B.C., according to the report, with recruitment and retention challenging for remote areas and smaller cities, while Vancouver has a significant advantage. 

And yet a lack of affordable housing could see Vancouver becoming a victim of its own success.

But while single house prices may be high, condo sales have been less dramatic in Vancouver, said Yu.

“There’s definitely a lot of affordable product available, so it’s really a question of what individuals are looking for,” he said. 

“As we start to go forward and we look at development in Vancouver, what we have to see is ongoing densification, essentially building near transit nodes, that type of activity, and that does help in terms of attracting individuals to the region.”

One potential strategy is to rebrand cities as attractive career destinations by showcasing their unique advantages — while challenging misconceptions, said the white paper.

“We can expect to see B.C. cities rebranding from majestic tourist destinations to career destinations capable of attracting ‘headquarter’ operations and individuals pursuing career advancement,” said Rock Lefebvre, chief regulatory officer at HRMA.
While Vancouver gets plenty of attention, other areas requiring talent and cities in the interior and north of the province, for example, are finding ways to promote the benefits of relocating there, he said.

“Employers courting potential employees are spending significant time and resources to assist spouses to find suitable employment and acclimatize into the communities.”

A key theme that came out in the discussions was this idea of “Vancouver and the rest,” said Winnie Wong, project lead at the Public Policy Forum in Ottawa, along with misconceptions about smaller towns and the need to get the message out about their benefits. 

“You may not appeal to every person but there are groups of people that are more interested in a certain type of lifestyle and to think of attracting talent in more of a diversified manner.”

But the problem is we live in a world where the young adult population in particular is increasingly urban in terms of where it’s oriented, where it wants to live, said Finlayson.

“To attract in skilled, young people, professionals and people with technical and other  well-developed occupational credentials into those communities, as beautiful as they are physically and as nice as the area is in terms of climate — and it has pretty good hospitals, reasonable air service to Vancouver and Calgary — to attract people into there is a much bigger job than I think a lot of people realize.”

B.C. promoting diversity, training
Another strategy that came out during the roundtables was the need for greater promotion of diversity in the workforce through employer coalitions. Priorities include immigrant integration, Aboriginal engagement and leadership diversity, said Ariganello. 
“Employers are working towards the deliberate development of talent diversity by creating conditions that support diversification and success; not simply by recruiting under-represented groups but by providing equal opportunity for meaningful engagement, professional development, career advancement and respectful self-actualization.”

Employers are also sharing strategies and resources, as well as participating in Local Immigration Partnerships intended to build more welcoming communities, he said.

“Initiatives Prince George is an example of a multi-stakeholder group designed to bolster the economy of the city and its businesses, inclusive of regional diversity realities.”

These are not necessarily directly prescribed measures but are a way to get more sector-wide buy-in, said Wong.

“Creating those coalitions, it just builds more momentum for organizations across sectors to think about opportunities and ways that they can share best practices, for instance, and better understand how to increase diversity. 

“So it’s not just bringing in a diverse workforce but also how do you leverage that diversity once you have it?”

Some of the non-urban regions have a much better record of working collaboratively and it’s a simpler proposition because the key players all know each other and there are a limited number of important institutions, said Finlayson.

“They do have a greater capacity to collaborate, to work together…. whether you can achieve very much isn’t very clear but I can see the key parties come together and give it a shot,” he said. 

“Trying to apply that model in the Metropolitan Vancouver area is quite a different matter, assuming you need to — the needs are different.”

Another common challenge mentioned was the lack of investment from employers in training, though the bulk of employers are smaller ones so many of them are constrained in terms of resources and capacity, said Wong.

“A lot of folks spoke about perhaps the benefits of coming together as maybe a sector or in a particular region to kind of pool their resources to create training programs, create internships and open up those opportunities that they can’t do necessarily on their own.”

But there may be risks to the focus on skilled trades, said Finlayson. 

“I do worry a little bit that political leaders here at the provincial level, and federal level as well, have gotten very focused on the need to train a lot more people in skilled trades because there are supposedly all of these big projects that are going to be developed in the resource economy and it’s not clear to me… that we’re actually going to see those projects materialize in quite the way that a lot of policymakers are assuming.”

Frustrations around labour market data were also expressed during the roundtable discussions. With an unpredictable economy and shrinking workforce, the province needs to develop a more flexible, long-term vision that uses quality data and is responsive to regional priorities, said the white paper.

“The timing of provincially aggregated data and its relative static nature… minimizes its utility. Both government and business participants agreed that if it was more scenario-based and interactive, then employers could use it more proactively,” said Lefebvre.

Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey (LFS) said the job market remains soft in British Columbia, at one per cent growth, while the Survey of Employment Payroll and Hours (SEPH) showed employment growth of more than 2.5 per cent, year over year, said Finlayson.

“I would say the SEPH survey is giving us a more accurate picture of the true state of the labour market in B.C. I think the LFS is increasingly questionable.”

It’s a real dilemma for policymakers because they listen to employers and various pundits talking about skill shortages in various occupations, and try to rejig and realign post-secondary education and training to build capacity, and yet “we live in an economy where things can shift quite quickly and abruptly and unexpectedly, and you can end up in a situation where you actually don’t have demand for the people that you’ve been training,” he said.

It’s more of a problem when it comes to the smaller markets where there are relatively small samples in the LFS, said Yu.
“There’s a lot of noise in the data so it can bounce around quite a bit every month, even every quarter, so sometimes you’re wondering whether or not you’re looking at noise or trend,” he said, adding it would be nice to see more granular, reliable data.

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