When Richard Oltmanns left the Okanagan for Edmonton 10 years ago, he was looking for greener job pastures.
For him, the chance to earn a living at a job paying north of $20 an hour were few and far between in Kelowna, where jobs paying $15 or less in the private sector were the rule rather than the exception.
“Back then, it wasn’t conducive to supporting a family on a minimum wage job and affording the cost of living in Kelowna,” recalled Oltmanns.
So he and his partner moved to Edmonton. Oltmanns went to school to get his welding ticket and found a steady well-paying job in his line of work before they decided to move back to Kelowna.
“I had my welding ticket and my wife had started her own company so we thought we could move back here for the quality of life. In Edmonton, it was always about work, work, work,” said Oltmanns, who was born and raised in Kelowna.
“I knew it wouldn’t be easy but I was coming back with 10 years of employment added to my resume and I had my (welding) ticket.”
But for Oltmanns, 47, returning home was like revisiting a time warp—nothing had really changed in the local job market from when he left.
“Everything has gone up over that time, property taxes, cost of fuel, groceries…and you meet people with jobs paying $15 an hour now and they feel lucky to have them. That’s why we left 10 years ago but nothing appears to have changed.”
Adding to his misfortune of bad timing was the closure of Enterprise Steel, a fabricating plant in Kelowna, located at Dilworth and Enterprise, which closed two weeks before Oltmanns’ returned home.
He said that plant closure put 38 welders out of work, either forcing them to look for work out of town or filling the few welding jobs that otherwise might have been available.
And the fact Oltmanns had his welding ticket made potential warehouse business employers leery to hire him, afraid he would bolt at the first chance of getting a higher-paying welding job.
“But the reality is there are no welding jobs in town, there is nowhere else to go,” he said.
Growing number of Employment Insurance beneficiaries
The experience confronting Oltmanns is one that many manufacturing job related trades people face—to find work you have to be prepared to commute either to Alberta’s oil patch or B.C.’s northeast oil and gas development sector.
The problem is as the cyclical oil and gas industry has fallen into an economic slump over the last few years, those workers are returning home to the Okanagan, hoping to find similar high paying jobs. But they simply don’t exist.
And that is one reason why the job creation stats of late have not looked promising for the Okanagan Shuswap region, and B.C.’s Interior in general.
In December, Statistics Canada released a report showing that B.C. had the third largest increase in Employment Insurance beneficiaries in Canada for the September-October period, behind only Saskatchewan and Alberta.
In B.C., the number of Employment Insurance beneficiaries rose by 2.1 per cent up to 56,100, according to the Stats Canada report, with increases noted for Abbotsford (+8.3 per cent) and Kelowna (+6.7 per cent), while there was little change in Vancouver or Victoria.
StatsCan did caution, however, that part of the year-over-year increase could be related to EI policy changes that came into effect last July.
Those changes included a five-week increase in benefit eligibility to a maximum now of 50 weeks, reduction from two to one week for first EI payment benefits and reqEIrement of work reduced from 910 to between 420 and 700 hours to qualify for EI payments.
And this past week, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative released a report also based on StatsCan data reporting a 1.2 per cent net loss in jobs to start 2017 compared to the start of the previous year.
The CCPA report hit on a similar theme as the EI beneficiary update: That the numbers were positive in the Lower Mainland and southern Vancouver Island regions, but elsewhere the regional disparities are escalating in the opposite direction.
The report indicated that since the economic recession began to impact the Okanagan Valley in 2009, the number of jobs in the Thompson-Okanagan region had fallen 2.1 per cent, and that five of the seven regions across B.C. had fewer jobs now than in 2008.
A tale of two BCs
Provincial NDP leader John Horgan said the EI beneficiaries numbers reflect a growing divergence between the rural economy, which he encompasses as B.C.’s Interior, and the urban economy of southern Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland.
“These statistics tell a story of two British Columbias. The premier is always qEIck to pat her Liberal government on the back for job creation stats, but when you break those numbers down regionally, those jobs are being created in the Lower Mainland primarily,” Horgan said.
“And you are seeing that those jobs are not full-time but part-time jobs, so you are finding that people have to have two or even three jobs in order to live in the higher cost of living jurisdictions. Wages and job opportunities are not increasing, but everything else is, from taxes to hydro to MSP to ICBC rates. “
He said the economic benefits of the real estate boom of recent years have covered up a lack of growth in the private sector, particularly with manufacturing jobs.
“Since 2001, there are now 25,000 fewer people working in the forestry sector. In the last 15 years, some 150 sawmills across the Interior have closed. That has a big impact on the rural economy in this province,” he said.
“It leaves people to migrate to urban centres like Kelowna, Prince George or Williams Lake in the Interior based on the appearance of growth and opportunity to find work in those local economies, but that is not the reality as evident by the growing unemployment numbers.”
B.C. agricultural minister Norm Letnick, the Liberal MLA for Kelowna-Lake Country, says the economic picture portrayed by those two recent studies is reflective of “a whole bunch of things” happening simultaneously.
Letnick points to the oil and gas industry economic downturn in Alberta and northeast B.C. as having an impact on Okanagan commuter workers who have lost their jobs.
“It has been surprising to me how often when I’m out knocking on doors in my constituency where the family I meet, the bread winner is working in the oil patch,” Letnick noted.
“Those people in that situation who lost their jobs are now back home looking for work. Hopefully looking forward, the oil patch will see an economic improvement and those jobs that have been lost will come back.”
Letnick says the the Liberal provincial economic mandate is to create the infrastructure to help both locate and move goods and services to create business investment opportunities, which he says will ultimately equate to creating new jobs.
Optimism for the Central Okanagan
For the Central Okanagan, Letnick points to the upgrades at Kelowna General Hospital, new IHA headquarters, Innovation Centre, expansion of UBC Okanagan and Okanagan College, expanding traffic capacity on Highway 97 between Lake Country and Peachland as reflections of his government’s strategy being executed regionally.
Letnick noted the importance of post-secondary training expansion capacity, in particular at Okanagan College, as necessary to help workers learn new job skills to meet changing employer job skill demands.
Transitioning into different jobs that require learning new job skills through a person’s working career has become more common in an increasingly small business diversified and less resource-based economy, he noted.
“Jobs change and we need to provide the training opportunities for people to evolve with those changes,” he said.
“We know the Okanagan has so much to offer from a quality of lifestyle standpoint, and we know that the private sector will create the most jobs in our economy, so our job as government is to create the climate to take advantage of those factors.”