A skill gap analysis of the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako was announced last year, thanks largely to a provincial grant. Millier Dickinson Blais (MDB), the Toronto consulting company that won the contract to do the analysis, was in Burns Lake recently for a forum as part of the final stages of the report.
To date, MDB has been collecting data to form the basis of the final report. The workshop in Burns Lake brought together community leaders, business leaders, and RDBN board members, to lay out the facts and pull comment from attendees to help fine-tune the final report to the specific needs of the region.
The timing of the report will be helpful, especially given the crisis Houston is facing with the announced closure of West Fraser’s Houston Forest Products mill.
“This information can be very useful in helping us move forward after the closure of the mill,” said Bill Miller, RDBN chair. “It has strategic value.”
At this point, the information exists mostly as data with recommendations to follow. But the data is telling, and could be used to help shape the future of economic development, education and training throughout the region.
The total population of the region, as of 2012, is 38,126 people. That’s down from a peak of 41,642 in 1997, but since 2006, it represents a steady increase averaging two per cent population growth yearly. The province has averaged seven per cent population growth in the same time.
We are a relatively young region, with a median age of 39.3 years, compared to a provincial median of 41.9 years, but our youth are more likely to drop out of high school than the rest of the province.
“A lot of communities are starting with an older workforce,” said Trudy Parsons MDB director of workforce studies. “This is an advantage you have.”
The region has comparable education levels to regions across the north, but province-wide, we have a higher percentage of young people without high school diplomas, or any certification beyond high school.
That contributes to a higher than average unemployment rate. The region hovers at just over 10 per cent unemployment, compared to a provincial average of 7.8 per cent unemployment.
Those of us who do work, enjoy a marginally higher average wage than the rest of the province with an average household income of $62,305 in the region compared to $60,333 province-wide.
The closure of the Houston Forest Products mill has put an exclamation point on the next statistic. Employment in wood related industry is down 23 per cent since 2001. Slightly more than 2400 (this statistic does not include the loss of employment due to the pending closure of the Houston mill) people have forestry related employment in the region, compared to 2001 when 3160 people were employed throughout the region.
Mining, oil and gas have taken up some of the slack. More than 800 people are employed in the sector, up 13 per cent from 2001, when 715 had employment in the sector.
While forestry isn’t showing signs of being a growth industry, the mines, oil and gas sector show a possible increase in jobs of up to 2250 by 2021. That’s the best case scenario, if a majority of announced projects move forward.
Construction related trades will see a strong boost between now and 2021. Construction-related employment is expected to more than double between now and 2021. In 2011, 750 were employed in the construction trades region-wide. By 2021, 2250 skilled jobs will need to be filled.
Peak employment for skilled trades in the region will be in 2018, after which a decrease in demand will be felt as announced projects wrap up. The possibility of more projects being announced to stall that decline was not part of the data.
If announced projects don’t move forward, the region’s job opportunities will shrink. By 2021 we’ll have 935 fewer jobs available than we do now.
If projects move forward, the region grows by 1673 jobs compared to now, although the real number is expected to be somewhere between the worst-case and best-case scenarios.
The top five occupations as defined by the study are: Mining and quarry supervisors, agriculture managers, truck drivers, millwrights and industrial mechanics, and underground production and development managers.
Residents surveyed reported the key barrier to employment in the region to be lack of education and/or training for jobs available. The also reported local newspapers to be the main source for learning about employment opportunities, with employment agencies following second.
Online job-seeking was reported to be relatively un-utilized in job hunts.
In a region where a lack of post-high school education or training is high, it’s perhaps unsurprising that employers surveyed reported a lack of education and training qualifications to be the key barrier to hiring locally.
“Lack of education was recognized as the key barrier to employment,” Parsons said. “There’s a recognition that jobs are changing, and the types of skills that employers are looking for are on the increase.”
The study did a sample of job postings between April 1, 2013 and Sept. 1, 2013. Smithers had 284 job listings, Vanderhoof 153, Burns Lake 101, Houston 75, Fort St. James 72, the RDBN rural 43, and Granisle had one job posted.
Almost half the jobs were listed as full time. See the accompanying illustration for the breakdown of occupational categories listed.
The biggest issue identified as the cause for the mismatch for employment demand and the persistently high regional unemployment rate is lack of training and lack of education. Seventy-four per cent of regional employers reported it difficult to find the skills and talents they need within the region.
“Employers are not getting enough applications,” Parsons said. “And they’re not getting applicants who have the right skills.”
More than 60 per cent of employers said that there is not enough dialogue between education providers and employers.
“Are graduates from programs employable upon graduation?” asked Parsons. “Sometimes we hear that’s not the case.”
First Nations in the region were singled out as facing aggravated circumstances, with restricted transportation options, homes on reserves far from employment opportunities, and persistent poverty and substance abuse issues which make education and training difficult to achieve.
Even where First Nation citizens complete education and training programs, the report identified their employment outcomes to be low, possibly related to social discrimination.
“We know, based on the comments we’ve received… It’s very clear that they experience discrimination and there are issues around access to employment and issues around the kinds of training and programs available.”
“We need to strengthen that relationship with First Nations,” Parsons said.
Workshop participants provided feedback to MDB regarding ranking the importance of findings and comments as to what may have been missed or what nuances may have been overlooked.
MDB will take what was learned, develop final recommendations, and form a potential strategy for aligning the potential regional workforce with the education, skills and opportunities available.
The final report is expected towards the end of November.