How will business restart successfully and help our economy return to the level we enjoyed before COVID-19? What does it mean to “build back better?”
Well, one answer is retraining our workforce to ensure we are more resilient for many years to come. Before the pandemic, Greater Victoria was booming. We were at or near what economists would consider capacity as our unemployment rate was among the lowest in Canada. Our fundamentals were strong then, and that will be key to helping us get back on our feet. But, as with all things, there is room for improvement.
Our region benefits from being the seat of British Columbia’s public sector. Downtown Victoria is home to thousands of provincial government workers whose paycheques are not directly affected by undulations in the market. We also have CFB Esquimalt, which, every day, sees thousands of military and civilian personnel go to work inside its gates.
These major employers create a stability that has allowed other business sectors to thrive. The unparalleled beauty of our landscape, and the aspirational lifestyle it allows, also make us a magnet for technology companies and tourism operators.
The pandemic has turned much of our world upside down. But, in doing so, it has shown us how resilient and innovative we are, and what we need to do to become even more so in the years ahead.
It starts with people. A promising hiring and retraining program was announced by the provincial government in early September. The $44.1 million Health Career Access Program will recruit 7,000 health-care workers for long-term care and assisted-living. About 3,000 applicants will be people who need to be retrained on the job, specifically workers who have had their jobs displaced during the pandemic. Many hospitality businesses have had to change their business models, focusing on takeout and delivery for example, and cutting back on staff. These workers know how to provide great service and are ideal candidates for new jobs that are being created in health care.
Of course, taking people out of one industry to help another is not a perfect solution. As the economy recovers, and those hospitality employers start to rehire, they’ll need staff. But we will all be better off as a community if the overall pool of workers in our region continues to grow in size and skill. Right now, we face a real risk of our workforce eroding as people leave for better opportunities elsewhere. Losing potential employees could be devastating to all industries that are not able to find and keep workers needed to grow their revenue. Fortunately, there are options for employers such as the BC Employer Training Grant Program. It provides funds to help staff adapt to changing job requirements and learn new skills and competencies.
Greater Victoria has all the fundamentals in place to get back to a thriving economy but it’s going to take many months to get there. Let’s use this time to develop those resources that will ensure our workforce has the skills and flexibility to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
Bruce Williams is the CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
This column originally appeared in the September 2020 edition of the Business Examiner