The Okanagan is at that pivot point.
The economy is humming along and the unemployment rate is historically low.
Yet, the jobless rate is so low there’s a labour shortage, and if that isn’t solved it could be a drag on the economy.
“The natural labour force is shrinking, and we’re relying on immigration and employers being competitive to attract and retain workers to keep the economy going,” said Stephanie Slaman, business development officer with the Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission.
“Businesses are expanding recruitment and retention initiatives in response to the current competitive job market.”
On Friday, Statistics Canada released figures pegging Kelowna’s unemployment rate at 4.3% in July, down from 4.4% in June.
In January of 2018, the jobless rate locally was 6.2%, and it was a record-low 3.3% in January 2019.
A 5% unemployment rate is considered full employment by most.
When the rate dips below that level, virtually everyone who wants a job is working or about to find a position immediately.
Those who are left jobless either aren’t trying very hard or they have barriers, such as disability, child care, criminal record or sketchy work history.
KF Aerospace is always looking for qualified aircraft structural technicians, avionics engineers and aircraft mechanics to fill demand.
The company is Kelowna’s largest private-sector employer, with 800 workers maintaining and retrofitting aircraft at its hangars at Kelowna International Airport for airline, military and government clients.
KF routinely hires the entire graduating class of structural technicians from Okanagan College, and hires qualified workers from other companies and immigrants too.
B.C. has a Provincial Nominee Program to help employers bring in skilled immigrants to fill positions that will otherwise remain empty.
Immigration Canada has a Temporary Foreign Worker Program with a specific agriculture arm to bring in seasonal workers for jobs that most Canadians don’t want to do.
That’s why currently there are 2,800 Mexicans and 950 Caribbeans in the Okanagan, most of them working in orchards.
High technology is the Okanagan’s biggest economic engine, with an impact of $1.7 billion annually, 700 companies and 12,500 workers — a 64% growth in two years.
The Valley’s tech sector does a good job of attracting and retaining workers because it hires new graduates from UBC Okanagan and Okanagan College and plays up Kelowna’s affordability (compared to Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco) and recreational lifestyle to lure workers here for good-paying jobs.
Kelowna’s unemployment rate is low even though the forestry and construction sectors are soft right now.
Booming high tech, tourism, health care, professional services, agriculture and viticulture are more than picking up the slack.
Employers that pay minimum wage, or close to it, feel the squeeze the most.
That’s why the labour shortage is most acute in hospitality, retail and service.
One hospitality employer is taking an innovative approach.
The owner of the Accent Inn and Hotel Zed in Kelowna has a Duck ’n Rebels program named after the rubber ducky in every bathtub in Accent rooms and Zed’s reputation as a rebel in the industry with its out-of-the-ordinary retro quirkiness.
The program encourages employees to embody the company’s four core values (have fun, be real, make everything better and have each other’s backs) and be rewarded with badges of awesomeness, gift cards, smoothie parties and a special fund to help any staffer going through a tough time.
Staff also have flexible working hours and employee discounts on cellphone plans, mattresses, furniture, exercise equipment, bikes and electronics.
All employers are urged to be creative in attracting and retaining workers.
That includes not just competitive wages, but great work culture, flexibility, perks, discounts, hiring immigrants, minorities and the disabled, and convincing part-timers to work more hours and retirees to work part time.
B.C. employers have been stepping up in terms of pay.
The province has the third-highest average hourly wage in the country at $27.59 an hour, up almost a dollar from a year ago.
In the first quarter, 101,945 positions went unfilled in B.C., a 10% increase in a year, according to Statistics Canada.
In both local and provincial surveys, about half of all employers report difficulty in finding qualified workers.
Many employers cite attracting and retaining workers as the biggest problem facing their company, and sometimes work goes undone or work is turned away because of the labour crunch.
The labour shortage is not unique to Kelowna or the Okanagan.
The B.C. unemployment rate is 4.4%, so virtually the whole province faces a similar problem.
Newfoundland has the highest jobless rate, 12.8%, so it’s not experiencing a labour shortage.
The national rate is 5.7%.