BC's economy still driven by the resource sector

For any resident of the Lower Mainland, a combination of the knowledge economy, tourism and a vast array of services seems to dominate the landscape, while our province's historic role as a producer of resource products (specifically forestry, mining, agriculture and energy) appears to be receding into the past.

Many Metro Vancouverites even perceive the resource sector as irrelevant to our local economy. It is little wonder new labour market entrants, especially those in the Lower Mainland, take a dim view of the resource sector, and are often less inclined to seek work in these industries.

The truth is resources offer tremendous career and economic opportunities, both directly and indirectly, to workers and businesses throughout BC. Moreover, the resource sector continues to be not just a driver, but the major driver of our provincial economy.  A recent study by Philip Cross, former chief economic analyst at Statistics Canada, shows the huge economic value of the natural resource industry in BC, and in particular the Lower Mainland.

While resource-dependent communities in the Interior and North are the obvious direct beneficiaries of mining, oil and gas, and forestry, Cross' report demonstrates that over 55 percent of resource-related jobs and income (direct, indirect and induced) flow to the Lower Mainland. That includes not just employment at mining and forest industry headquarters in Vancouver, but a wide range of services purchased from businesses throughout the province such as transportation, engineering, legal services, accounting and banking.

Equally noteworthy, resource companies buy most of their inputs — over 80 percent — from within BC.

So what does this mean for young engineering, science or even arts graduates entering the labour force? Without good information about the range of career opportunities that exist in these industries, both in smaller communities and in the Lower Mainland, resource companies might lose good prospective job candidates because the may balk at the prospect of working and living in camps or smaller communities in remote BC. Or they may hesitate to join the resource industries workforce after having grown up in a resource town where they saw the family and social effects of layoffs in forestry or mining.

But the truth is those that choose employment in forestry, mining or energy will likely receive good compensation and the opportunity to employ their skills in a wide variety of capacities. In addition, service sector workers in professional, scientific and technical industries will find that their future careers, too, are strongly linked to the resources.

So it is important for BC workers to have a clear, unbiased view about the role and importance of the resource industry. It offers an unparalleled range of economic and social opportunities to workers and their families, both directly and indirectly. And at a time when skills shortages are developing as boomers retire, young talented workers are needed in the resource industries.

The good news is modern standards and adherence to strict regulations have vastly improved the mining and forest industries, with many proven successes. And yet the resource industries haven't fully told their stories, and have taken, at best, a fragmented approach to their image. This needs to change.

The first step in engaging young prospective workers will be to improve the resource sector's public standing. Lack of public acceptance as a result of some past failures in Canada and abroad by mining companies to fully mitigate pollution, engage local communities and meet social responsibilities have fuelled continuing criticism of mining and natural gas companies by media and the public. The anti-logging campaigns in the 1990s served to do the same for forestry, portraying logging companies as corporate entities driven to decimate our forests for profit.

Our resource industries are a foundation not only for communities in Northern, Interior and Coastal BC, but also here in the Lower Mainland. Resource companies need to get the story out about their successes, and to do so in a unified way. By acquainting young prospective employees with the merits and benefits of working in the resource economy, we'll attract and retain top talent at a time when that talent is sorely needed.

Marlyn Chisholm is a research fellow at Resource Works. She has 27 years of consulting experience in economic and social evaluation in the transportation, civil engineering, tourism, forestry, and hydro-electric sectors, as well as in economic development, macro-economics, labour market and education. Marlyn holds both an MA and BA in Economics from the University of British Columbia.

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