Nostalgic resource town mindset has Kamloops unprepared for future of employment

Plain Rhetoric
By Bill McQuarrie
December 5, 2017 - 5:00am

KAMLOOPS — It’s difficult writing a column when you have to begin with these three words, “I was wrong”. But I was wrong, at least in my assumptions. Let me explain.

I have often spoken about economic development and in most instances intentionally not mentioned the three leading agencies in Kamloops: Venture Kamloops, Kamloops Innovation and Community Futures. By intentionally, I mean I didn’t think they were contributing much in the way of direct efforts, so why bother including them in the discussion? But I was wrong and not in a small way, at least as far as two of them go.

In researching this particular column, I reached out to all three agencies and asked for specifics on their efforts to attract, encourage or expand business growth in the city. I didn’t want to hear about studies or reports they had done but instead I asked for some real numbers and in all honesty, I didn’t expect to hear much.

However, Venture Kamloops and Community Futures got back to me within a few days and the numbers were impressive. Despite two requests, Lincoln Smith, Executive Director at Kamloops Innovation did not respond and so without hard numbers to compare, I will have to leave them out of this piece.

Over at Venture Kamloops, which receives most of its funding from the City of Kamloops, Jim Anderson, its Executive Director has been leading a very aggressive campaign.

In 2015 and 2016, Anderson reported Venture Kamloops had worked with 89 companies looking to relocate their businesses to Kamloops. In most cases these have been companies looking to start a branch operation. Of the 89, seven have opened new locations and several more are still active files.

Over the same period, VK helped 213 new startups get underway and worked with 102 existing businesses to help them expand. All told, Anderson states the work Venture Kamloops has done with these firms accounts for more than 4,000 jobs.

Over at Community Futures, an organization primarily funded through the federal government (Western Economic Diversification), the results were also positive.

Blair Gray, General Manager, reports that through their self employment services they, “...have helped 60 businesses launch in the past two years.” Adding, “We have also provided 24 business loans over those two years, the majority (18) for new business ventures.”

Gray goes on to state, “...both our loans and Self Employment services have helped create approximately 120 jobs.”

So given these kinds of results, one can’t help but wonder why our unemployment rates are higher than both the provincial and national averages?

As reported last week on CFJC, unemployment in Kamloops is up to 10.7 per cent, a four point increase from this time last year and six per cent worse than the current provincial rate.

As I prepared to write this column, I confess to having the likes of Venture Kamloops in my sights as the villain of inactivity. However, research pays off at times and as explained, they, along with Community Futures, have likely contributed to a lessening of the unemployment numbers. Without their work, I’m guessing the unemployment numbers would have been even higher.

And so I leave you with this thought: If they are not the villains, are we the authors of our own misfortunes? Unlike so many other cities who have moved on, do we keep believing and holding onto this dream that we are and always will be a resource town? And I’m not just talking about Ajax and the few hundred possible jobs it may or may not create.

Wishing for the past while ignoring the present and not preparing for the future is not working well for Kamloops. The numbers countering this daydream are staring us in the face. It seems we have this nostalgic resource industry mindset that appears to be at the root of our poor employment performance.

Even if the mine goes through, automation will, as it has done in forestry, decimate mine employment. Look to the feller buncher in forestry or mill automation to see how one machine or automation can replace entire crews and you are seeing the equivalent future of open pit mining.

In a recent post on Facebook, someone noted that there were some well paying jobs available in town. Jobs in the $20/hr range and yet one comment quickly pointed out that “jobs at the new mine would pay way more than that.” Yes they would, but what if it doesn’t happen or your one in the many thousands of applications sent in is not accepted? Or worse yet, you get hired only to discover you are being replaced as artificial intelligence takes over the operation of your machine.

The old resource era as we know it, just like all other industry and employment eras, is coming to an end. The resources are still needed and will continue to be mined/harvested, but the workforce will never return to the levels of the good old days.

Our unemployment numbers seem to suggest we are not yet ready to face let alone accept that reality.