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Labour shortage, or bad jobs?

B.C. promises training, help for employers to add staff.
Employers say they can’t fill vacancies. Critics say they should pay more and treat workers better.

The B.C. government is offering the first look at parts of a $460-million plan to plug a growing labour gap as employers struggle to  fill jobs. 

The province has budgeted  $126 million in the next year for skills training, helping immigrants to  have their credentials recognized and helping businesses hire staff.

Finance Minister Katrine Conroy said lack of staff is the number one issue for small businesses in the province. 

 “We need to get more people into the  province. We need to get more people trained. We need to get more people  trained in the industries that need more people,” Conroy said when the  budget was released last week.

B.C.’s latest labour market forecast  estimates the province will add roughly 400,000 new jobs by 2032. It  created 96,000 net full-time positions in 2022, the province says,  leading to an unemployment rate of just 4.4 per cent in January. 

The flipside of that good  news story is a complicated economic conundrum. Businesses in sectors  like food services and construction say they simply can’t find staff.  And workers’ wages aren’t keeping up with inflation, even though their labour is in high demand.

That’s heightened demand on government to  find solutions, either by expanding training for sectors like the  skilled trades or helping businesses hire workers who are  underrepresented in the current job market.  

“We cannot manufacture people,” BC Chamber  of Commerce president Fiona Famulak said. “We cannot create people, so  we have to face the reality that there are not enough people to fill the  job opportunities now or in the future.” 

B.C.’s answer to the problem is the Future  Ready Plan, a $460-million strategy the government plans to roll out  over the next three years. 

The budget is scant on details of how the  money will be allocated, but the plan is expected to include $39 million  for short-term skills training, $58 million to help newcomers and  immigrants certify credentials in Canada and an undisclosed sum “to  assist small and medium-sized business in finding and implementing  practical solutions to current labour market challenges.”

The budget also hints the plan will  “maximize workforce participation” by spending cash on training early  childhood educators, health-care staff and workers in the tech industry.  

The Finance Ministry would not offer  further details on how that money would work or how the cash would be  allocated. The full plan is expected to be released in the coming  months. 

Already, the low unemployment rate has many  businesses in the province scrambling for staff. Some industries like  construction and food services are increasingly relying  on the federal government’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program to fill  positions. And the government expects that trend to continue as a rising  number of workers retire.  

The province forecasts the labour  participation rate – the number of eligible people who are employed —  will tumble from 65.1 per cent last year to 62.2 per cent by 2027 as  workers leave their job. 

But some argue that those figures are overly pessimistic, and that framing the problem as a “labour shortage” is a mistake. 

“I hate that term. I just hate it. I cringe  when I hear it,” said Jim Stanford, a labour economist and director of  the Centre for Future Work. 

Stanford argues the unemployment rate masks  the fact that many workers are “under-employed” and would take better  jobs with longer hours if they were available. 

He also says many demographics  — including women, Indigenous people and people with disabilities — are  underrepresented in the labour force and could fill more jobs if they  were offered the training and support to do so. “You’ve got potentially  pools of labour supplies that haven’t been captured at all,” Stanford  said. 

Conroy noted that 75 per cent of the gains  to B.C.’s labour force last year were for women, something she  attributed to new federal and provincial spending on child care. 

Stanford’s frustration with the “labour  shortage” is that it frames the economy’s problems as the fault of  workers instead of putting the onus on employers to attract workers by  offering better wages, hours and other working conditions.  

“A labour shortage is a very biased term,  and it also, I think, misrepresents exactly how much slack there still  is in the labour market in Canada,” Stanford said. “There’s a lot of  slack.” 

Sussanne Skidmore, the president of the BC  Federation of Labour, says she wants more details on how B.C. plans to  train the workforce of the future. She says she’s particularly hoping  for investments in training for key skills and careers that will support  well-paying jobs. 

“We’re hearing this piece around worker  shortages, but we know that in a lot of sectors we’re hearing about  issues. It’s not just about wages but also treatment of workers,”  Skidmore said. 

What Skidmore doesn’t want to see, she  said, is a reliance on temporary foreign workers to fill labour gaps.  That federal program allows businesses to hire foreign workers on  short-term contracts when they can’t find someone domestically. 

B.C. businesses applied for a record number  of workers last year, and the province’s Employment Standards Branch  received more than 12,000 applications from interested employers last  year alone, particularly in sectors like construction, agriculture and  food services. 

Critics say workers in that program are  underpaid and vulnerable to exploitation. Skidmore and the federation  have argued workers who come to Canada should gain permanent resident  status so they can move jobs and negotiate better salaries.  

“We have a really strong opinion in the  labour movement that if folks are good enough to come here and work here  in our country, they are good enough to be treated the same way,”  Skidmore said.