Trent Ernst, Editor
It is not a new problem in the north. With so many high-paying jobs in the oil and gas and energy production sectors, companies like retail and restaurants have a hard time attracting employees with minimum wage jobs.
While minimum wage is jumping to $10.25/hour next month, the government of British Columbia is running a new pilot program to attract workers to these positions.
The new Pilot program is part of the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP), a program that accelerates the permanent resident application program for skilled and experienced workers who want to settle in BC. “In essence, what we’re going to do is to make it easier for folks to apply for permanent residence and increasing the jobs that can be considered,” said Minister of State for Multiculturalism John Yap, who made the announcement at the North Peace Cultural Centre last week.
“The Immigration Task Force listened to the concerns of the communities in northeastern BC about their urgent need for skilled workers and made recommendations in their final report to the Premier,” said Yap. “The PNP Northeast Pilot Project will immediately help employers fill job vacancies by giving them a larger pool of skilled workers to draw from.”
This pilot project responds to an advance recommendation by the Premier’s Immigration Task Force, which was in Northeastern BC in January talking to area employers, who confirmed the critical need to recruit and retain more temporary workers to fill existing job vacancies.
Currently, there are 22 occupations in the PNP Entry-Level and Semi-Skilled (ELSS) category available to employers who wish to retain temporary foreign workers. This will be increased by more than 100 occupations that are eligible. Occupations being added include positions such as mine service workers, heavy equipment operators and machine operators.
The Northeast pilot will initially run for two years. All other requirements for the PNP’s Entry Level and Semi-Skilled category will apply to this pilot project.
Sheila Low from the Wilderness Lodge says she’d rather hire locally, but after advertising for housekeepers for over a year, she was left with no other option but to bring workers in from elsewhere. “We’d have been happy to have trained anyone from Northern BC,” says Low. “I even ran ads in Prince George to no avail.
It reached a crisis point for the hotel last summer, when they were faced with a full house and only one housekeeper. “We’re paying more than we’ve ever had to, plus benefits but even that didn’t work,” says Low.
For Low, the solution wasn’t the PNP program. “We couldn’t wait the number of months to go through the process of getting workers from out of the country. We had to do something immediately.” So Low was able to recruit workers in the Lower Mainland.
For most businesses in Tumbler Ridge, the situation isn’t quite as desperate, but elsewhere in the Peace, there are many businesses that cannot find people to work. Local MLA Blair Lekstrom says that the positions that usually go unfilled are usually calling for less skilled individuals. “Let’s say WalMart is having trouble getting employees. This expands the PNP program so they will actually qualify.”
Part of the challenge, says Lekstrom, is that some people in the region feel a sense of entitlement. “I’ve had people come and tell me that they won’t work for under $25/hour. They’re talking to the wrong guy, and I know the vast majority of the people up here are of the same mindset. If there is a job, they’ll take it until they can get something better. It’s a small minority that won’t even go look for a job.”
Still, when entry level positions at the mines or in the patch start at well above $10/hour, it can be tough to convince someone to work for minimum wage. “A business can’t just arbitrarily say ‘I want foreign workers’ because they’re cheaper labour,” says Lekstrom. “ They have to advertise locally and provincially. They have to try and attract people from BC first. The whole intent of this is the willingness of government to say if you’ve done all that you can do to attract workers, then here’s another option.”
Lekstrom says that many jobs will come with set time frames. If there was a need at one of the mines for 50 labourers for six months and everything was done to cover those jobs using local people but they still couldn’t find employees, then, says Lekstrom, this policy could be used. “If the unions are asking ‘are they going to take work from our members?’, the answer is no. As northerners raising our family here, we should have first crack at the jobs. But if an employer has exhausted all options of finding a worker here in BC, they should be given the opportunity to fill those jobs.”