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Plans to fix B.C.’s labour shortage are good – but not bold enough: economist

Rick Cotton says B.C. needs to raise its labour participation force
Rick Cotton, associate professor with UVic’s Gustavson School of Business, says more needs to be done for B.C. to help find one million jobs by 2032. (Photo courtesy of the Gustavson School of Business)

Everybody needs to roll up their sleeves to fix British Columbia’s serious labour shortages.

Rick Cotton, associate professor at the University of Victoria’s Gustavson School of Business, says recent proposals by the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade and the provincial government to get more people working in B.C. through immigration, technology and investments in education are heading in the right direction – but lack boldness.

The province forecasts more than one million open jobs by 2032 as 636,000 workers are expected to retire. Further growth will create another 381,000 jobs. Cotton said these figures, combined with low birth rates, mean that B.C. needs to attract and retain workers from inside and outside of Canada at a record clip.

“In the end, B.C. needs to be a ‘talent magnet’ as immigrants and newcomers from other provinces and countries will be needed to fill these gap.”

However, B.C. could still end up being short some 83,000 workers within a decade.

“The reality is that we need to raise our labour participation rate and maximize employment in all categories because the unemployment rate is low for Canada and for B.C.,” Cotton said. Canada and B.C.’s labour participation rate was 64.9 per cent in December 2022, almost 10 per cent behind the labour rates in the European Union.

But it is not a number’s game: B.C. must not only get more people working, but also provide them with chances for success.

“(We) need to basically strive to ensure that all employable people in B.C. are welcomed and supported in pursuing higher education, certification programs, as well as jobs and careers.”

Consider immigration. B.C. competes against the rest of the world for talent. While B.C. is a highly desirable place to live and work, it needs to provide services that help newcomers find jobs by recognizing their credentials and feel generally welcome, Cotton said.

Several demographics are also under-represented in the workforce.

RELATED: B.C. needs to fill more than 1 million jobs within 10 years: report

Efforts must be made to safe and welcoming environments for all employees, especially underrepresented populations, That means spending money on programs that make B.C. a “bastion of diversity, equity and inclusion” where all workers can have careers, Cotton said.

“B.C. business and government employers should also focus on what in talent management terms is called total rewards,” he added. That not only means better and fairer wages, but also flexibility at work and programs that promote personal well-being and professional growth. Lifetime learning will be critical, he added.

Unions also play a role. B.C. has a large unionized population and needs to learn from other countries like Germany where cooperation between employers, government and unions is more common.

The search for labour and changes in the work environment unfold against what Cotton calls the fourth industrial revolution, whose key technologies include artificial intelligence, robotics, the ‘Internet of Things’, blockchain, 3D printing, genetic engineering and quantum computing.

Cotton said employers should tap into these technologies to automate mundane, repetitive and back-breaking tasks that people do not like and are not good at. Workers, on the other hand, should not fears these technologies.

“Even though new technology can be disruptive, past history shows that despite widespread fears, it typically creates more and different jobs than before it was introduced.”

Technology will offer workers a chance to find what Japanese call Ikigai, or purpose in life, Cotton added.

“People wanted and continue to want more meaningful and balanced lives.”


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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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