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City's jobless rate falls, P.G. bucking national trend

Fueled by continued growth in the construction industry, steady movement of goods arriving by rail from Prince Rupert and record-high lumber prices for local sawmills, the unemployment rate in Prince George dropped to 6.8 per cent in January.
11 Ravi Kahlon
Despite an overall rise in unemployment in the province, Ravi Kahlon, B.C.'s minister for jobs, economic recovery and innovation, is encouraged by the declining number of COVID-19 infections. Winning the fight against the pandemic is key in province's economy regaining its strength.

Fueled by continued growth in the construction industry, steady movement of goods arriving by rail from Prince Rupert and record-high lumber prices for local sawmills, the unemployment rate in Prince George dropped to 6.8 per cent in January.

That’s an improvement over the December rate of 7.6 per cent unemployment and November’s rate of 8.1 per cent. The latest jobless figures for Prince George are also down from 7.8 per cent in February 2020, just before the pandemic.

Statistics Canada reports B.C.’s unemployment rate for January was eight per cent, up from 7.2 percent in December. The national jobless rate also climbed, from 8.8 per cent to 9.4 per cent.

In the past month there were 53,100 people employed in Prince George and of that total, 41,500 were working full time. After the city set a record in 2019 with $223.45 million worth of building permits issued, the value on new housing and building starts dipped only slightly in 2020 to $210.02 million.

“Prince George is a bit of an anomaly,” said Ravi Kahlon, B.C’s minister for jobs, economic recovery and innovation. “You have 3,200 more people employed in Prince George right now than you did before the pandemic, which is different than any other city in the province.

“We know the construction and housing boom there is significant. I think we’ve got record-level building permits up there and we’re also benefiting from the port of Prince Rupert. We made a $25 million investment a few weeks ago up there and the port has seen an additional nine per cent of cargo coming through there. They continue to grow and the latest projection I saw is they will surpass Montreal in size in the next eight or nine years and all that’s coming through the hub in Prince George.”

In the first two months of the pandemic when all but essential businesses were forced to close and layoffs were widespread across the province, many workers had their full-time jobs cut to part-time hours. But Kahlon says there’s been a shift lately to more full-time positions becoming available as employers gain confidence in the economy.

“We saw an additional 28,000 people enter the workforce in the province to look for work (from December to January) and so it skews the unemployment numbers a bit but it’s a good sign, It means more people see opportunities to get back in,”  said Kahlon.

“The job numbers are still challenging and are not where we were at pre-pandemic level but 97 per cent of all the jobs that we lost already have come back,” he said.

“I know people are struggling, I know businesses are struggling. My family ran a restaurant for decades in Victoria and it was hard without a pandemic. With a pandemic it’s extremely stressful and there’s real mental health implications as well. I always just say to them, hang tight, we’ve got over $1.5 billion in supports that are already there with property tax cuts and liquor price changes (for restaurants and pubs) and we’re going to continue to support people in businesses until we start getting out of this pandemic. Between us and the federal government there’s a lot of money being spent to keep businesses afloat.”

But the B.C. Liberals say the NDP government has not done enough to stimulate the economy to create more jobs and keep struggling businesses open. Todd Stone, the Liberal critic for jobs, economic recovery and innovation said the government has spent just $12 million of the $300 million small and medium-sized businesses recovery grant program announced in September. The aid package offers grants of between $10,000 and $30,000 for eligible B.C. businesses.

Stone says there are 41,700 fewer people working in the province than there were in February 2020, just before the pandemic began.

“It’s unacceptable that a year into the pandemic, the NDP has failed to come up with a concrete jobs plan to get people back to work,” said Stone. “The government needs to step up and foster an inclusive recovery to facilitate the re-entry of these vulnerable groups into the labour market. They simply can’t afford to wait any longer.”

Stone said the provincial government’s pandemic response is especially failing women and youth aged 15-24. The province’s underutilization rate, which takes into account people involuntarily working fewer hours at their jobs, has increased for women from 9.9 per cent in December to 13 per cent in January and over the same period for youth the rate jumped from 15.6 per cent to 21.56 per cent.

Indigenous and new immigrant communities continue to show unemployment rates two per cent higher than the average within their respective regions. Kahlon admits the economy won’t fully recover until a vaccine is available to most British Columbians and pledged to continue to support the hardest-hit sectors. He is encouraged to see COVID-19 infection rates on a downward trend over the past month in B.C.

“We as a province are doing well in this second wave and it’s because people are doing the right thing and staying within their households and following the health guidelines and if we continue to do that we are going to come out of this as a leader in the country,” said Kahlon.

“We had the strongest economy in the country prior to the pandemic and we will after as well. These next few months will be the hardest months but I have faith in the people.”

Kahlon, 41, a Victoria native who played for Canada’s field hockey team in the Olympics in 2000 and 2008, is familiar with Prince George and the region, having served 1 ½ years as the government’s parliamentary secretary for forest, lands, natural resources and rural development. He remains optimistic about the future of the forest sector and the opportunities for forward-thinking companies that can adapt to evolving industry standards.

“Right now everything is running full-tilt, lumber prices are high and employment is good,” he said. “One of my mandates is around mass timber (engineered construction) and using our BC forest products to create more value-added (products) and change how we build buildings in this province

“The level of innovation that we’re seeing in our forest sector is phenomenal. This is very high-tech operations and if you’re interested in tech and innovation then forestry is a great opportunity. Right now the construction industry knows they need to meet their climate-change objectives and targets for the future and the best way to do that is with the building materials. Here we have, with our forest products, an opportunity to address embodied carbon to keep people in BC employed and be a world leader in innovation and technology.”