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The Prince George Citizen - - Opinion - JOEL MCKAY North­ern De­vel­op­ment Ini­tia­tive Trust

An­other smoky Au­gust made for mis­er­able north­ern­ers as many were forced to tem­po­rar­ily move, ditch their sum­mer plans or re­treat in­doors from the op­pres­sive smog last month. Not the best con­di­tions from which to run a “move north” cam­paign, dou­bly so when the words “this is the new nor­mal” start cir­cling around.

Trou­ble is, we could use a few more good peo­ple up here.

Or, re­ally, a lot more. Many com­mu­ni­ties across the north this past year have com­plained about the sheer num­ber of jobs that are go­ing un­filled in our towns, ev­ery­thing from hos­pi­tal­ity, re­tail and ser­vice sec­tor jobs to truck driv­ers, pro­fes­sion­als and ad­min­is­tra­tors.

It’s be­com­ing in­creas­ingly difficult to at­tract and re­tain good tal­ent in the north and ev­ery em­ployer from restau­rants to lo­cal gov­ern­ment is feel­ing it.

I know at least one chief ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cer in a small town who has given up try­ing to find a tra­di­tion­ally-qual­i­fied can­di­date for a man­age­ment role and is will­ing to hire un­skilled lo­cal help and train that per­son to fill the role.

Or there’s the other per­va­sive chal­lenge: a north­ern em­ployer has landed a rock star em­ployee but is only able to keep him or her for one or two years be­fore said rock star is back on tour, so to speak.

Thing is, it’s not as if we didn’t know this was com­ing, even­tu­ally the boomers would re­tire, and there’d be more jobs avail­able than peo­ple.

But it’s not as sim­ple as that up here. A few more things have hap­pened in re­cent years that have com­pli­cated mat­ters.

First of all, the work­force of 2018 is highly mo­bile.

We’re not the only re­gion that’s look­ing for skilled work­ers, and those work­ers, if they’re will­ing to move, will se­lect po­si­tions in com­mu­ni­ties that of­fer the best qual­ity of life and pro­vide de­cent com­pen­sa­tion.

Ear­lier this year, we polled com­mu­ni­ties across the north on their work­force at­trac­tion ini­tia­tives and learned the chal­lenge isn’t so much mak­ing po­ten­tial work­ers aware of our com­mu­ni­ties, it’s of­fer­ing them com­mu­ni­ties they want to live in.

In fact, one of the big­gest bar­ri­ers to work­force at­trac­tion ef­forts in the north now is hous­ing. Our stock is old (typ­i­cally built be­fore 1980), in­ad­e­quate (not ev­ery­one wants a four-bed­room bun­ga­low with two big yards) and many homes (10 to 15 per cent across the north) need ma­jor re­pairs.

On top of that, in many com­mu­ni­ties there is lim­ited rental hous­ing avail­able for sin­gle pro­fes­sion­als or even fam­i­lies.

Hard to get ’em here if they don’t have a place to live.

Com­mu­nity ameni­ties are an­other chal­lenge.

Work­ers in­creas­ingly want to live in vi­brant, di­verse com­mu­ni­ties with things to do, places to en­joy and fa­cil­i­ties to use. Small, re­source-based com­mu­ni­ties have been strapped for cash for so long that many of the fa­cil­i­ties built dur­ing the boom years (once again, pre-1980) need up­grades, and there isn’t a lot of money to go around to do it, not to men­tion try­ing to find the dol­lars to build new fa­cil­i­ties.

Or­ga­ni­za­tions such as ours are struc­tured to pro­vide on­go­ing grant fund­ing to help up­grade and build these ameni­ties – it’s a core part of our busi­ness.

But fund­ing to build the ameni­ties is only one part of the equa­tion; the other part is the money needed to run them, which, if they’re pub­licly owned, comes from lo­cal tax­pay­ers, or, if they’re built and run by a non-profit, comes from vol­un­teer hours and fundrais­ing.

Last I checked, not too many peo­ple were keen on higher taxes, and most non-prof­its in the north are run­ning peren­ni­ally short on vol­un­teers.

OK, so then what?

Well, our tra­di­tional in­dus­tries have in the past gen­er­ated most of the pri­vate in­come and tax rev­enue in many of our small com­mu­ni­ties, so growth of those sec­tors has the po­ten­tial to gen­er­ate enough new in­come to ad­dress our hous­ing and amenity chal­lenges, which would help us build more sus­tain­able and at­trac­tive com­mu­ni­ties to solve our work­force chal­lenges.

But for that to hap­pen we need those in­dus­tries to grow, and for them to grow we need con­sis­tent pol­icy and strong mar­kets to help move ma­jor projects for­ward.

Of course, we could look at build­ing other in­dus­tries – new, di­verse, in­no­va­tive in­dus­tries.

The chal­lenge is that en­trepreneurs these days like to live in com­mu­ni­ties where they can find a home and en­joy lo­cal ameni­ties. You see the co­nun­drum we’re in. — Joel McKay is the chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of North­ern De­vel­op­ment Ini­tia­tive Trust and a for­mer Busi­ness in Van­cou­ver ed­i­tor

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