Ma­jor projects of­fer upside to dis­placed forestry work­ers

Pulling out of the sta­tion

The Prince George Citizen - - Local - Derrick PENNER

It seems con­tra­dic­tory, at the same time a ma­jor sawmill clo­sure looms over Ques­nel, cost­ing 150 well-pay­ing jobs, con­trac­tors report hav­ing dif­fi­culty tak­ing on projects be­cause they can’t find work­ers, ac­cord­ing to Mayor Bob Simp­son.

Be­tween a $27-mil­lion hospi­tal ex­pan­sion, school con­struc­tion and high­way di­ver­sions, on top of pri­vate projects, Simp­son said con­trac­tors there are scram­bling to keep up.

“One of our biggest stum­bling blocks in the com­mu­nity is that we’ve got crit­i­cal job va­can­cies across the board,” said Simp­son.

“That shocked ev­ery­body around the ta­ble,” Simp­son said of a meet­ing re­lated to the im­pend­ing clo­sure of Tolko In­dus­tries’ Quest sawmill, which will wind down by Au­gust.

“The re­al­ity is we need to look at (that) work­force and re-tool them for where the jobs are,” he said.

Then, on a pro­vin­cial ba­sis, there is the ex­pected ramp-up for the LNG Canada liq­ue­fied nat­u­ral gas mega-project.

Con­struc­tion has re­mained at least a sta­ble point in B.C.’s em­ploy­ment pic­ture as the unem­ploy­ment rate has shrunk to a nation-lead­ing low of 4.3 per cent as of May.

Unem­ploy­ment was a touch lower at the end of 2018, said Bryan Yu, deputy chief econ­o­mist for Cen­tral 1 Credit Union, but it has hov­ered close to the four-per­cent mark for sev­eral months now.

“Though we have seen (some) un­cer­tainty broadly in the global econ­omy and are al­ways con­cerned about some neg­a­tive news from Al­berta in terms of the do­mes­tic econ­omy in Canada, the labour mar­ket is still chug­ging along,” said Yu.

Res­i­den­tial hous­ing con­struc­tion in B.C. is ex­pected to see a de­cline along with the over­all slow­down in real es­tate sales, per­haps by the end of this year, said Yu. How­ever, that de­cline will likely be off­set by ma­jor projects un­der­way in the province.

RBC tal­lied a $4-bil­lion surge in spend­ing on ma­jor cap­i­tal projects this year in B.C. as a key rea­son for up­grad­ing B.C.’s eco­nomic fore­cast for this year, par­tic­u­larly with re­spect to the start of LNG Canada’s $40-bil­lion plant in Kiti­mat.

“Em­ploy­ment growth con­tin­ues to rise and has been rising since mid-2018,” Yu said, not­with­stand­ing weak points, such as grim con­di­tions in the forestry sec­tor. Strug­gling with shrink­ing tim­ber sup­plies and short-term losses in weak lum­ber mar­kets, small towns in the In­te­rior have been sent reel­ing with the an­nounce­ment of sawmill production cut­backs and clo­sures.

In May, Tolko an­nounced the clo­sure of its Ques­nel mill fol­lowed by Can­for’s de­ci­sion last week to shut­ter its Vavenby mill, which will put 172 people out of work as of July.

On Tues­day, Nor­bord an­nounced the in­def­i­nite cur­tail­ment of production at its ori­ent­ed­strand-board mill in 100 Mile House, which will mean 160 lay­offs.

For some of those work­ers los­ing jobs in forestry, how­ever, there are no guar­an­tees.

“Un­doubt­edly there is an opportunit­y for those who have what we call the skills or trans­fer­able skills,” said Chris Atchi­son, pres­i­dent of the B.C. Con­struc­tion As­so­ci­a­tion. He said that for sev­eral years now the con­struc­tion sec­tor has been in what it con­sid­ers a skilled-labour short­age, with elec­tri­cians, welders and car­pen­ters among the skills in most de­mand.

How­ever, if a con­struc­tion com­pany is look­ing for tick­eted welders, there isn’t a di­rect path for a forestry worker.

Simp­son hears that caveat loud and clear.

“Those who don’t have im­me­di­ately trans­fer­able skills are the ones we have to tar­get and see what the path is for them to trans­fer into ar­eas that have va­can­cies and job op­por­tu­ni­ties,” Simp­son said.

And they face a rad­i­cal ad­just­ment from production jobs that are con­sis­tent to a sec­tor where work is project-based and less con­sis­tent.

“But we’re at a time where the job op­por­tu­ni­ties are far more ro­bust and op­por­tu­ni­ties ex­ist than were (available) even five years ago,” Simp­son said.

“That’s the fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence.”

CIT­I­ZEN PHOTO BY BRENT BRAATEN

The Lit­tle Prince pulls out of the sta­tion on Thurs­day af­ter­noon in Lhei­dli T’en­neh Memorial Park. The train runs Satur­days, Sun­days and statu­tory hol­i­day’s from 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., weather per­mit­ting.

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