Island Voices: Skilled-labour search is still a challenge

A booming economy on Vancouver Island and the coast led to stellar job growth in 2017, with a record of 20,100 new jobs across our goods and service industries, of which two-thirds, or 13,400, were new full-time positions.

According to Chartered Professional Accountants British Columbia’s Regional Check-Up report, our labour force also grew by 18,000 new workers in 2017, which included the re-entry of 10,800 individuals who had previously opted out of the workforce.

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This translated into a five per cent unemployment rate for 2017, which suggests a tighter labour market where some employers might find it more challenging to fill vacancies locally. As our economy continues to grow, we are starting to see a lot more competition for talent, but the high cost of housing and relatively low wages are affecting our region’s ability to attract and retain skilled labour.

According to data from Statistics Canada, at the end of the fourth quarter of 2017 the average hourly wage offered by employers in the region was $18.50, compared to the B.C. average of $19.55 and the $20.10 average in Canada. Our region had the second lowest average offered hourly wage in the province, just above the Thompson-Okanagan at $17.50.

In contrast, we have one of the most expensive housing markets in B.C. At the end of 2017, the benchmark price for a single-family home was $692,800 for the area covered by the Victoria Real Estate Board. In addition, while the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Victoria is relatively more affordable compared to other jurisdictions such as Vancouver, the rental market here is tight.

Colliers International data show rental-vacancy rates are 0.7 per cent in Victoria and 0.5 per cent in Saanich, compared with three per cent nationally.

Combined, these factors make it challenging for businesses to recruit from outside the region to fill their employment needs.

For example, Eric Erikson at Redlen Technologies noted at a recent economic roundtable in Victoria that many potential workers in the technology sector might need to take a pay cut to move here. In addition, should a new job in a career move not work out, there are often fewer opportunities in Victoria in the more technical professions, making the region less enticing.

Looking ahead, the unemployment rate for the region fell to 4.9 per cent by the end of June. There’s an increasing number of job vacancies across sectors, and the search for talent will remain challenging. Ultimately, our region needs more bodies who are of working age to fill both low- and high-skilled jobs.

One potential long-term solution is to work with our post-secondary institutions to attract more students from outside this region and provide them with the opportunity to gain the skills we need across our industries and give them the incentive to stay after graduation.

Chuck Chandler, FCPA, FCA, is a partner at Grant Thornton LLP in Victoria. The CPABC Regional Check-Up report is available online at: bccheckup.com.

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