B.C.’s minister of jobs says the province is focusing on child care, skills training and immigration to help curb the province’s current labour shortage — a challenge that will only worsen with more than one million new job openings expected over the next 10 years.
Ravi Kahlon, minister of jobs, economic recovery and innovation, joined Vernon-Monashee MLA Harwinder Sandhu for a virtual town hall hosted by the Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, April 20.
Chamber general manager Dan Proulx relayed the most common concern among chamber members: what can be done to address B.C.’s labour shortage and get people to re-enter the workforce?
“Normally governments have a challenge where they have more people and not enough jobs, but the challenge of having more jobs and not enough people is still a major issue for the economy and for our province,” Kahlon said.
Kahlon said improving child care options for parents — especially women — can help foster more participation in the labour market.
“By lowering the cost of child care, it means more opportunities for people to enter the work force to address the labour shortages that we have,” he said.
The B.C. government’s Affordable Child Care Benefit program came into effect in September 2018, replacing the Child Care Subsidy Program. In the 2022 budget, the province allocated $30 million in 2022-23 to help create close to 1,000 new licenced spaces for school-aged children, among other measures.
The labour shortage can also be addressed through skills training, Kahlon said, adding he’s not only talking about funnelling more people through four-year degree programs.
“It’s micro-credentialing. It’s giving people short courses to be able to take the employment opportunities, it’s going to be working in partnership with private sector partners who want to be able to train people on the job. So we’re really looking at this in a very flexible way.”
Kahlon said immigration will be another key to overcoming labour shortages, and B.C. has already attracted a high number of workers from other jurisdictions.
“Last year saw the largest net migration to British Columbia in 68 years. We had 100,000 people move to British Columbia,” Kahlon said. “It means people are coming here, they see that there’s opportunities here for employment, for a better life.”
Earlier this month, the federal government relaxed rules on temporary foreign workers in areas of the economy in desperate need of employees — something Kahlon called a short-term solution. The solution in the longer term will be increasing immigration from other countries, he said.
Locally, about 100 workers have been added to Vernon’s work force through the Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot Program.
Despite the significant labour shortage, Kahlon pointed out that B.C. has an employment rate four per cent higher than pre-pandemic levels, including the private sector. Still, he’s hearing from businesses in a wide range of sectors that are desperate for workers.
“I heard from a tech company that said if they could hire 2,000 more tech professionals in the next three years, they would. That is huge.”
With more people flocking to B.C. over the next decade, there will be a need to accommodate them with more housing — and housing is in short supply already.
Kahlon and Sandhu both identified housing as a precursor to a thriving economy. Kahlon referred to the question of how the province can work with municipalities to support attainable housing as “the million dollar question” in every community he’s spoken to.
He said he looks at Sandhu’s jurisdiction with envy: “660 units of affordable housing in the community is quite something. We don’t have that in my community.”
Shortening the time it takes to have permits approved for new housing developments could help boost the housing stock faster, Kahlon said. Embracing new technology and innovations in the construction industry will also be paramount.
“That’s why I’m a big fan of mass timber,” he said, pointing to B.C.’s recent launch of the Mass Timber Action Plan, which aims to take advantage of the sustainability of mass timber construction, as well as the faster construction timeline.
Sandhu also addressed a question regarding street-entrenched issues of vandalism, drug use and crime, and whether she supported tougher penalties for crimes while increasing access to treatment programs in Vernon.
“I firmly believe that people deserve to feel safe in their communities and businesses should be able to operate free from harassment and vandalism,” she said, while pointing to mental health and substance use investments such as the expansion of services at the Vernon Downtown Mental Health and Substance Use Centre announced in March.
Through that initiative, “more people, particularly young people, can access substance use counselling, treatment and mental health care in our community,” she said.