Five years ago, the town of Mackenzie was the archetype of British Columbia's struggling resource communities. Every one of its six forest product mills was closed, and despite millions of dollars in government aid, almost a quarter of the town's residents left, leaving empty classrooms and vacant homes in their wake.
Today, Mackenzie's population has recovered and it now has a different labour problem: It cannot attract enough workers.
The B.C. government recently launched a skills-training plan to try to meet the looming demand for skilled workers, particularly in the North. What is happening now in Mackenzie illustrates an important complication – persuading workers to move to where the jobs are.
In 2011, Pat Bell was B.C.'s jobs minister, and he approved an advertising campaign to encourage British Columbians to move to the North to take advantage of job opportunities. Today, the former politician is an executive for Conifex Timber, which owns two sawmills in Mackenzie, 185 kilometres north of Prince George. Mr. Bell is still trying to figure out the answer to the same problem.
"We have a mill in Mackenzie that is currently shuttered. It would be economic to reopen it; we could open it and make a profit tomorrow," he said in an interview. "Our biggest single challenge is, how would we staff that mill, because we would need upwards of 200 people … And that is, for us, a mountain we cannot see how we can climb. We are struggling to fill the positions in our existing mills."
Conifex bought two sawmills in Mackenzie after AbitibiBowater abandoned the town. The Site 1 sawmill was closed in 2008 and remains dark, but at the Site 2 sawmill, Conifex is running as hard as it can with the crew it has. The company is looking across Canada for workers – millwrights and electricians and more.
An entry-level job on cleanup duty in the mill pays $27.50 an hour with full union benefits and a pension plan. With overtime, the average salary would be about $70,000 – this in a town where $200,000 buys a fine, four-bedroom home.
The town's mayor, Stephanie Killam, spent years trying to hold the community together through the tough times. Now she is busy trying to attract new families. She rattles off the town's attractions with a well-honed sales pitch: Clean air and a safe community nestled in a region that serves as a massive outdoor playground for fishing, hiking and golf. "We have a recreation centre, a swimming pool, a skateboard park and a small ski hill," she says. "If we can get people into the community to look, they say 'Wow, you have this?'"
But getting people to take a look isn't easy. The mills are all having trouble hiring, she said. "Sometimes I think the reputation that communities get, when they have been down and out, is hard to shake."
Companies like Conifex and Canfor don't see the current uptick in forestry as a short-term rebound – the two companies are putting more than $140-million into their Mackenzie operations. However, B.C.'s resource towns do have a boom-and-bust reputation and that is not just a problem for one community.
The provincial government estimates that 38,500 new jobs will open up in the North in the next ten years. The skills-training program emphasizes that many of these are mobile jobs – trades jobs that will require people willing to relocate or spend much of their time based in work camps, building pipelines and mines and liquefied natural gas plants.
Shirley Bond is B.C.'s Jobs Minister now and, like Mr. Bell, she is a champion of rural and northern communities. She sings the praises of her home town of Prince George in the central interior, where traffic jams last minutes, not hours, and her son can afford to buy a home. But luring young people away from the cities isn't easy. "It is one of the most challenging things we face," she said.
Ms. Bond is advocating a system of financial incentives – for example, offering student-loan discounts for people who are willing to join that mobile work force of the future. It is worth a try, because without changing attitudes, those new jobs that the B.C. Liberal government has worked so hard to attract won't be filled by British Columbians.