Election 2015: Kelowna’s unique job market demands

Jobs. It’s the four letter word previous election campaigns have been made and broken on and this time around it’s particularly important.

Jobs. It’s the four letter word previous election campaigns have been made and broken on and this time around it’s particularly important.

When the price of oil nosedived, Alberta jobs were shed at a rapid pace, ultimately casting a pall over the national economy.

The national unemployment rate is now seven per cent, which is down from the country’s recessionary peak of 8.7 percent, but higher than the 6.6 percent that prevailed when Prime Minister Stephen Harper took office.

Through the ongoing tumult, however, Kelowna stayed steady and out of step.

Currently, said Corie Griffiths, manager of the Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission, the local unemployment rate sits somewhere between the area of 4.5 to five per cent.

Many economists consider four per cent unemployment the same as full employment.

It sounds good, but Griffiths said full employment also comes with some challenges.

“The disadvantage of going below that figure is that we are going to have a labour shortage,” she said.

“We did a quick survey of 400 businesses with our Oct. 1 Business Walks program, and learned that human resource needs were very high on the lists of barriers and challenges for local businesses.”

It’s not exactly a new story for Kelowna. Before  Canada nosedived into recession in 2008 on the tail of US subprime mortgage crisis, employers were vying for new employees. Even fast food restaurants posted signs boasting starting wages well above the mandatory minimum as incentive to apply.

Those days aren’t back just yet, but they may be on their way.

“For the entire Okanagan, the workforce needed in the next five years is somewhere in between 28,000 and 48,000,” said Griffiths, citing both conservative and bullish estimates available to her.

Those figures include both  migration data and population growth.

“It’s a tough thing to overcome, and an issue the province and the country is facing,” she said. “There’s a race for human capital throughout the world. One advantage we have in the types of careers available matched with our unparalleled lifestyle.”

As for the types of jobs available, the Central Okanagan in particular has changed.

Manufacturing currently represents 10 per cent of the Canadian economy, but the number is much lower locally with that sector continually withering.

The biggest private industry employer in Kelowna is KF Aerospace, which has also suffered some in recent months.In February of 2014, two contracts were lost, and last August 60 layoffs resulted.

A much bigger proportion of the local job force comes from public sector jobs.

The top five employers in the Okanagan are trades positions, then healthcare and social services, construction jobs, financial/insurance and real estate jobs, educational services/scientific and technical services.

The final slice of that pie encompasses the tech industry, which was recently lauded by the premier for being a “billion dollar industry.”

“We are seeing growth in the number of firms by three per cent a year,” said Griffiths, noting employment figures in that area also have grown by four per cent a year.

“When you think about the median wage in those professions, that aligns nicely with feeding positively the economic climate.”

But will those who are trained for those careers head to the Okanagan? Or, will Okanagan youth train themselves for them?

The federal and the provincial governments can help by studying area needs, and communicating needs to area schools among other things.

This election, that topic has been fodder for many campaign promises.

The Liberals say they will give $500-million annually to the provinces and territories for training programs, with an additional $200-million for training workers who can’t get federal training and $50-million for aboriginal education.

The Conservatives promised post-secondary institutions $65-million to help them better align curricula with the needs of employers

The NDP pledged up to $200-million over four years for partnerships with the private sector and NGOs to create jobs for young people.

The Greens say they will establish a Canadian Sustainable Generations Fund that will invest in skills-training, education, energy efficiency, renewables, and emerging technologies.