Canada - record low unemployment, 350,000 workers needed in British Columbia

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Located about 200 kilometers north of the border with the United States, Kamloops is a city of nearly 87,000 in British Columbia, Canada, about 350 kilometers east and a bit north of Vancouver. In conjunction with the provincial government and the nearby sister city of Kelowna, they are beginning a recruitment drive to bring 68,000 workers into the region in the next five years.

The region is experiencing record low unemployment of about 4%, down from the previous record low of 4.3% from June last year. In such a tight employment market, they need to import workers to cover the shortfall.

Jeff Putnam, CEO of Venture Kamloops, is spearheading the effort to hold job fairs around the globe.

Recently, Putnam's economic development team attended job fairs in Edinburgh, Scotland, London England and Utrecht in the Netherlands. They were happy and encouraged to get over 200 prospective people interested and qualified to come to the region.

They are planning to return to another job fair in England in 2008, and another in Germany in 2009. At this rate, they are barely making progress.

In a change from efforts prior to now, Putnam says that "Now we're changing our focus to skilled-worker attraction." But, competition from many other countries such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa is fierce.

Size of the problem

British Columbia as a province is expected to be over one million job openings short during the next 12 years, with a shortfall of at least 350,000 people in key sectors. Panic would be too strong of a term to describe the situation, but both the government and the businesses of the region are appropriately concerned.

Right now British Columbia and several other provinces in Canada are experiencing very strong and growing economies. A shortfall of workers, especially skilled and educated workers, means that growth could stall and opportunities lost.

For several years, the federal government of Canada has aggressively been recruiting immigrants. Numerous steps have been taken to reduce immigration fees and paperwork to encourage more people to come to Canada. The country and its people in general take great pride in welcoming diverse cultures.

Numerous programs have been initiated at the federal and at local levels to make it easier for immigrants to come and to stay. Obtaining citizenship has become easier, students in universities are allowed increased flexibility in both work opportunities and options to stay after graduation, and training and assistance programs to help immigrants adjust to the new culture and languages abound.

The job market is tight - very tight - in British Columbia and several nearby provinces.

Labor force growth has failed to keep pace with employment growth for the past four years. There has been a below-average migration between provinces, and this trend is forecast to continue. Competition within Canada for the existing workforce is very strong, with the boom in energy and minerals - meaning largely oil - in Alberta being cited as one of the primary reasons.

The economies are growing strong to support the energy sectors, but that results in a shortfall of experienced and skilled workers in many professions. From hotels to housing construction, road building to machinists, business and information technology professionals included, nearly every industry and business sector is looking for workers.

Current goals are to add at least 8,000 more workers this year to the eight sectors hungriest for jobs in the Kamloops-Kelowna region, which would boost provincial GDP growth by more than an estimated $450 million.

The worker shortage is also undermining the quality of work, especially in unskilled or front-line jobs.

"Good people who used to take these jobs now have more and better-paid options, so entry-level positions, if they are filled at all, are filled by people employers would not previously have hired," says economist Roslyn Kunin, director of the B.C. office of Canada West Foundation.

Solutions are problematic

British Columbia has two primary options to increase the numbers of work-ready people. The first is to boost the labor force by attracting more skilled immigrants.

The second is to increase its participation rate - a key economic yardstick referring to the percentage of the population that takes part in the workforce.

British Columbia currently has the lowest participation rate of the four Western provinces, in addition to having the lowest employment rate. If B.C. had similar employment rates in each age group to Alberta, it would have another 187,000 employed from the existing population.

The problem appears to be that B.C.'s employment rate reflects an older population. Provinces like Alberta have a larger number of younger residents.

Attracting immigrants may hurt British Columbia's participation rate as newcomers struggle with mismatched credentials and language barriers. But other options, even if successful, won't bring in the number of people needed to do the jobs required.

B.C.'s jobless rate is expected to stay low for several years, and most employers are bracing to adjust to shortages. Some will do this by increasing workers' hours, others by investing in productivity-boosting technology.

Smarter employers will design jobs that match people's abilities, says Graham Lowe, a Kelowna-based workplace consultant.

"It's pretty clear from at least two decades of research that employers haven't been as good as they need to be in making full use of the education, skills and experience workers bring," Lowe says.

But no matter what solutions are attempted, it seems quite clear that hundreds of thousands of immigrants are required in British Columbia over the next several years.


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