Long-term job growth needed

In 2013, our region experienced a relatively challenging year after two consecutive years of economic growth. The Cariboo had widespread job losses in various industries, an outmigration of labour, and a decline in capital investment. However, despite the difficulties we faced last year our economy, employment opportunities are expected to improve this year as several major projects move forward and an upsurge expected in forestry and other natural resource sectors.

According to the BC Check-Up, Regional Edition, our region experienced the highest overall rate of job losses in the province in 2013, with a net loss of almost 4,000 jobs. Manufacturing and primary industries incurred the brunt of the damage, losing 1,300 and 900 jobs respectively.

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Fewer available jobs drove many skilled tradespersons to leave the region and find work elsewhere, such as Alberta and the Peace country, and as a result, the labour force contracted. The upside was more job opportunities for those who stayed, and the unemployment rate fell considerably last year. While we saw skilled tradespersons leave the local workforce, many chose to keep their homes here and bring their wages back to the local economy where their spouses are employed and the cost of living is more affordable. Overall, even with this migration of workers, our total population did not decline.

The report found that overall capital investment dipped by one per cent last year, due to the decrease in the value of major projects under construction, and the completion of two mines. However, two new developments in Prince George are expected to be completed by the end of this year, and four others are scheduled to proceed, which will bring employment and economic benefits to our economy.

Lakeland Mills is replacing its sawmill that was destroyed by fire in 2012, and once operational, it is expected to employ approximately 100 workers. In addition, the $25 million Wood Innovation and Design Centre will be completed. Once finished, this research and academic centre for the technological advancement of wood products and building techniques should attract skilled workers and help raise educational attainment levels in the region.

Other projects that are scheduled to proceed this year have a total estimated value of $1.1 billion. The largest is Spanish Mountain Gold Limited's proposed open pit mine near Williams Lake; its capital cost estimate was revised upwards from $463 to $756 million in the past year. Other projects of note include a biomass project in McBride ($140 million), the Hills Health Ranch Expansion ($40 million), and a hotel and condominium development in Prince George ($40 million).

In addition, housing starts are on the rise in the U.S. and demand from China will likely continue driving our forestry industry, which is forecasted to have another good year even with the mountain pine beetle epidemic. Although the epidemic has caused production to slow and shut down some mills, mills that remain in operation may benefit from soaring prices.

Overall, while there are bright spots on the horizon, although the Cariboo has experienced a 2.5 per cent decline in consumer insolvencies between 2012 and 2013, the fact that the Cariboo's consumer insolvency rate was still among the highest in the province l suggests that some residents are still struggling financially after the recession. Beyond encouraging more construction activity, it is important for the region to focus on creating more long-term employment opportunities through the completion of proceeding projects and their spin-offs. This will encourage a more stable economy for those living in the Cariboo.

Stan Mitchell

Prince George.

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